On Wednesday, at a U.S. State Department press briefing, the Rubicon was finally crossed.
Responding to a question regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “We want to work toward a peace that both sides can agree to and both sides find sustainable. … We believe that both parties should be able to find a workable solution that works for both of them. We are not going to state what the outcome has to be. … It’s been many, many decades, as you well know, that the parties have not been able to come to any kind of good agreement and sustainable solution to this. So we leave it up to them to be able to work through that.”
This is the most constructive statement I have heard about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in decades. For the last several years, the “experts” have been saying, “We all know what a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict looks like.”
If anyone ever took the time to listen to the parties themselves, and examine the cultural context in which these words are spoken, they would immediately understand that the single most critical litmus test for determining a negotiating partner’s real intentions is not what they say to visiting diplomats and journalists in English, but what they say among themselves in their own language, and in particular, what they teach their children.
According to John Calvin (formerly “Jonaid Salameh,” before his conversion to Christianity), an EMET fellow who was born in Nablus, from the very earliest age, he was taught there would not be two states, but one state called Palestine. An important slogan on everyone’s tongue in the disputed territories is “Lama neharherah,” meaning “When we free it” — and “it” is all of Israel.
Calvin told me that this belief is a certainty, that the average Palestinian feels it is destiny that eventually all of the land will be free of Jews.
Surah 8, verse 39 of the Quran says, “And fight with them until there is no more fitnah [mischief, persecution, oppression, disbelief] and religion should be only for Allah; but if they desist, then surely Allah sees what they do.” According to Calvin, the interpretation is clear: There should be conflict until all worship is only to Allah.
Part of this cultural context implies a different meaning of the word “peace.” Accepting the existence of the other on their own terms is incompatible with true Islamic thought. Islam is a religion of conquest.
Says Calvin, “The conception of peace, as we know it in the West, simply does not exist within Islam. There can be a “hudna,” a temporary cessation of war, but only to regroup. Islam means total submission, or surrender, and a permanent peace can only happen when the entire world surrenders to Islamic rule. There is that sort of messianic concept of peace, but only after the entire world submits to Islamic rule.”
Many individual Muslims, particularly in places like Indonesia, Pakistan and India, where Arabic is not the native tongue, may not understand the Quran in a literal sense, and thus, may not hold these sort of hegemonic beliefs.
Most Americans, including many so-called “experts” in the field, have no idea of the cultural context with which they are dealing when they set out to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
In former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s autobiography, “My Life,” he describes how profoundly disappointed he had been with then-PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat after generous offers were made to the Palestinian leader by Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the Camp David negotiations. Arafat did not respond in the affirmative or the negative, but simply walked away from the table. His response came several months later, in the form of the Second Intifada.
In a moving chapter, Clinton describes how, just as he was about to leave office, Arafat called him up and told him he was a great man.
“Mr. Chairman,” Clinton replied, “I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one.”
It obviously has been more important for Arafat, as well as his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, who turned down an even more generous offer from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, to continue the struggle then to arrive at a permanent peace.
For decades, too many Western leaders and diplomats have tried to impose a solution that looks ideal when viewed through Western lenses.
These statesmen, however, do not have to be there on the ground when the maximalist offers are walked away from, and the inevitable violence ensues.
Thank you, Heather Nauert, for taking us a bit closer to reality.
Sarah Stern writes for the Endowment for Middle East Truth. This article was originally published at Israel HaYom, and appears here with permission.