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A Step Toward Mideast Peace: Tell the Truth
U.S. President Donald Trump (R) and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) answer questions during a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House February 15, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

A Step Toward Mideast Peace: Tell the Truth

Max Singer

Donald Trump ran for president pledging to throw off political correctness and tell bold truths. That’s something to keep in mind this week. On Wednesday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit the White House. Thursday will bring Senate confirmation hearings for David Friedman, Mr. Trump’s nominee for ambassador to the Jewish state. Both events offer an opportunity for the fearless truth-telling that Mr. Trump promised.

The U.S. has long favored Israel, even during the relative chill of the Obama administration. Washington has nevertheless parroted or passively accepted the conventional falsehoods about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If Mr. Trump wants to advance the possibility of peace, he should begin by challenging the five big untruths that sustain the anti-Israel consensus:

Israel occupies “Palestinian territory.” This is nonsensical: There never has been a Palestinian government that could hold any territory, meaning Israel could not have taken “Palestinian land.” Quite possibly large parts of the West Bank should become Palestinian territory, but that is a different claim.

The Trump administration should always describe the West Bank as “disputed” land and speak against the phrase “Palestinian territory”—except when used in the future tense. It should also recognize that Israel came to the territory it holds not only during a defensive war but also through historical and legal claims, including the 1922 League of Nations mandate to establish a Jewish homeland.

Millions of Palestinian “refugees” have a “right of return” to Israel. The standard international view is that Israel has prevented five million Palestinians, many living in “refugee camps,” from returning to their homes. But practically none of these people are refugees as normally defined; rather they are the descendants of refugees. The Arab world has kept them in misery for three generations to preserve their plight as a weapon against Israel.

The U.S. has failed to challenge this false narrative. It is the principal financial supporter of Unrwa—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East—whose sole purpose is to provide for the basic needs of these perpetual “refugees.”

Privately, American diplomats understand that the normal description of Palestinian “refugees” is a fraud and that these descendants have no legal “right of return.” A first step to peace, then, would be to end the charade and begin to dismantle Unrwa. The Trump administration might also mention the estimated 800,000 Jewish refugees who, in the late 1940s and early ’50s, were thrown out of the Arab countries where they had been living for millennia. Most of them settled in an impoverished, newborn Israel without international assistance.

Israelis and Palestinians have comparable claims to Jerusalem. This is the best example of the false “evenhandedness” that has long characterized American policy—saying, for instance, that “Jerusalem is sacred to both religions.” Although the city’s Al Aqsa mosque is significant in Islam, Jerusalem itself has essentially no religious importance. It is not mentioned in the Quran or in Muslim prayers. It was never the capital of any Islamic empire.

Peace requires recognizing three things: that Jerusalem must remain the capital of Israel; that the city’s religious sites must be protected and free, as they have been only under the Jewish state; and that any provision for a Palestinian capital must not threaten the city’s peaceful unity. A bold truth-teller would also move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, despite the threats of a violent response, and would allow the passports of American citizens born in the capital to record that they were born in Israel.

There was no ancient Jewish presence in Israel. Palestinian leaders insist that this is true, and that the historical Jewish temples were not actually located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This feeds their claim that the Jews came to Israel as foreign colonialists imposed by the Europeans after the Holocaust.

This falsehood can be sustained only because it is politely tolerated by the U.S. and Europe—and sometimes supported by U.N. agencies like Unesco. It works against the possibility of peace by denying the Palestinians a moral basis for negotiating with Israel. The Trump administration should contradict these absurd denials of history so often that Palestinian leaders begin to look foolish to their own people.

The Palestinians are ready to accept a “two-state solution” to end the conflict. The U.S. has a tendency to assume that Palestinian leaders are ready to accept Israel if suitable concessions are offered. The Trump administration ought to ask: What is the evidence for this? When did the Palestinians give up their long-term commitment to destroy Israel, and which leaders backed such a dramatic change? Undoubtedly, many Palestinians are willing and even eager for peace. Yet it is still taboo in Palestinian debate to publicly suggest accepting Israel’s legitimacy or renouncing the claims of the “refugees.”

Washington is practiced at superficial evenhandedness, always issuing parallel-seeming statements about both sides. What the Trump administration can bring is genuine evenhandedness: respecting each side’s truths and rejecting each side’s falsehoods, even when this leads to a position that seems “unbalanced.”

Israel, too, should move toward a strategy of truth-telling and stop appeasing the false international consensus. It ought to make its case defiantly to the world. Israel can be ready and willing to make concessions for peace without pretending that today there are any terms on which the Palestinians are willing to agree. The Israelis should continue to help the Palestinian economy but not refrain from publicizing the ways that Palestinians sabotage the effort and undermine their own welfare.

Even in a conflict as fraught as this one, there remain underlying truths—and American policy in the Middle East will benefit from telling more of them.

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