Throughout his years as a commentator on the Israeli-Arab conflict, Henry Siegman has consistently toed the Palestinian line that Israel is to blame for the failure to resolve the conflict. In a Jan. 25, 2010 article in The Nation, Siegman essentially promotes the current strategy of the Palestinian Authority leadership to bypass a negotiated settlement with Israel in favor of “forceful outside intervention.” The purpose of this strategy is to compel Israel to accept a Palestinian state under the conditions demanded by the Palestinians.
That Siegman would look approvingly upon the adoption of coercive tactics against Israel is no surprise. He has long painted Israel as recalcitrant and unworthy of support. At the same time, Siegman is an apologist for Palestinian rejectionism. When questioned in 2004 about former PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s legacy of condoning terrorism, Siegman could only offer that “his mistakes played into the hands of those in Israel” like Ariel Sharon to deny Palestinian statehood that the United Nations affirmed in 1947. He failed to mention that it was the Palestinian leadership itself that rejected the UN resolution to establish both a Jewish and Arab state in Palestine. He then went on to equate Palestinian terrorism with the actions of Israel’s founders.
Siegman remains in high demand among media outfits that consistently favor the Palestinians despite his poor record of assessing the situation. In 2004, after being asked if there was any possibility that Hamas would rule the Palestinians, he assured that there was “no likelihood of Hamas forming a government.” Then, after Hamas won control of the Gaza Strip in 2006, Siegman stumped for American engagement with the hardline Islamist group, insisting that this “presents possibilities for a peace agreement that were simply impossible with a Palestinian authority that was run by Fatah.” Once that gambit failed and with Hamas’s increasing diplomatic isolation, Siegman took up the new Fatah strategy to unilaterally adopt Palestinian demands against Israel’s objections.
Noticing that Siegman’s “writings over the past few years are hard to distinguish from the hard-line propaganda of the Arab tyrannies,” the New York Sun discovered that much of his funding came from Saudi, Kuwaiti and pro-Palestinian European sources and even, for a while, from an arm of the Palestinian Authority.
Siegman’s piece in The Nation does not disappoint his patrons. While he claims that an imposed solution would take into account Israeli concerns and not force upon Israel anything it has not already agreed to, Siegman clearly seeks to lay the groundwork for ignoring Israeli concerns by stigmatizing the Jewish state. He accomplishes this by labeling its building in Judea and Samaria as a “colonial project,” which he tells us, has transformed it into the “only apartheid regime in the Western world.”
This sort of invective precludes any serious, balanced examination of the conflict. The Nation piece is replete with loaded terms to describe those he opposes. He writes of the “infiltration of settlers and their supporters into key leadership positions in Israel’s security and military establishments” conjuring up the image of a settler conspiracy rather than the normal process of advancement within these institutions.
Israeli Colonialism in the West Bank
To affix the colonial label to Jewish settlement on the West Bank, Siegman skirts the basis of Israel’s claim to the land. The West Bank is the historic home of the Jewish people, as implied by its traditional names, Judea and Samaria. After the 1967 Six-Day War, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 242, which was carefully worded in recognition of competing Jewish and Arab claims to the land. One of the authors, former Undersecretary of State Eugene Rostow, explained that Israel’s claim to the land was as strong as any and that “the Jews have the same right to settle there as they have to settle in Haifa.” Siegman avoids discussing any of this because for his charge that Israel is engaged in a colonial project to have any validity it requires denying that Israel and the Jewish people have a legitimate claim to these territories.
Like many of Israel’s detractors, Siegman cherry-picks statements by Israeli leaders, taking them out of context to create the false impression that he is conveying what these leaders themselves believe. He repeats statements by Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert warning of the negative consequences of continued Israeli rule over residents of the West Bank that were made within the context of their efforts to gain support for withdrawing from much of this territory to resolve the problem of ruling over a hostile Arab population. But there is a fundamental difference between Israeli policy that presumes a need to make the “painful choice” of parting with some or all of the territories in exchange for peaceful coexistence with the Palestinian Arabs and Siegman’s purported colonial project.
Siegman and his ideological compatriots frequently smear Israel as apartheid. As has been frequently pointed out
by those who knew South African apartheid first-hand, the laws and practices that define South African apartheid have no equivalent in Israeli law or practices. Israeli citizens of all races and religions enjoy equal protection under the law and are free to mingle as they choose within Israeli society. Palestinian Arabs living in the West Bank and the Gaza strip are not citizens of Israel
, so they do not possess the rights and privileges as citizens. Nevertheless, the restrictions imposed upon them are the outcome of several years of Palestinian terrorism against Israelis. Israeli measures that constrain the daily life of the Palestinian population, like travel bans on certain roads, were enacted to reduce the vulnerability of Israelis to terrorist attacks.
Prior to the escalation of Palestinian violence beginning in September 2000, the security barrier –known as the “apartheid wall” to Siegman’s audience — along with the checkpoints, did not exist. The Israeli government reluctantly instituted these measures after considerable debate and under public pressure as the only way to stem the tide of suicide bombings and other attacks that killed 452 Israelis, mostly civilians, in 2002 alone. With the current reduction in violence in the West Bank, these provisions are being cautiously relaxed and in some cases overturned by Israeli courts. To highlight the dangers of removing them, just days after a recent ruling overturned the ban on vehicles with West Bank license plates using Route 443 through the West Bank, there was a report
that a Palestinian driver attempted to run an Israeli civilian vehicle off the road.
Siegman charges that Israel has disenfranchised the Palestinian population because of its religious and ethnic identity and that this is akin to South African apartheid. But by ignoring the crucial issue of Arab rejection of the legitimacy of the Jewish state he distorts reality. In 1947, the United Nations approved partition of the land remaining from the original British Mandate for Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state. The Jews accepted partition, but the Arab states and Palestinian Arab leadership rejected partition and chose war. Siegman’s charge that Israel disenfranchised the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza has little validity because the Palestinians themselves rejected enfranchisement in 1947, did not call for it while Jordan and Egypt ruled the territories and have rejected it since then as long as it meant peace with Israel as a Jewish state.
Most recently, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rejected a 2008 offer by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that would have given the Palestinian Arabs nearly all of the West Bank, along with the Gaza strip. The Palestinian leadership continues to demand that Israel allow the three to four million who claim to be the descendants of Palestinian refugees from what became Israel in 1948 to flood into the Jewish state. Fulfillment of this demand is widely recognized as incompatible with the continued existence of Israel.
The Palestinian leadership has consistently refused to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, even prior to Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Nevertheless, Siegman focuses only on Palestinian disenfranchisement, bypassing the crucial question of why Israel should accept a Palestinian state empty of Jews when Palestinian Arabs refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state — even one with a 20 percent Arab minority.
Siegman avoids discussion of the Arab rejection of Israel’s legitimacy with good reason. To do so would reveal the inconsistency of his own argument. Fifty-seven states belong to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. These countries possess millions of square miles with hundreds of million citizens and define themselves as Islamic states. Many severely curb the rights of non-Islamic religious and ethnic minorities. Yet, Siegman finds fault with Israel alone, with its 8000 square miles and seven million citizens, when it implements policies to consolidate its claims to disputed territories, such as establishing Jerusalem as the state’s undivided capital or allowing Jews to live in the West Bank.
Siegman uses alleged statements by various Israeli leaders, from Moshe Dayan to current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to insinuate that Israel intentionally undermines any solution. He writes,
From Dayan’s prescription for the permanence of the status quo to Netanyahu’s prescription for a two-state solution, Israel has lived “without a solution,” not because of uncertainty or neglect but as a matter of deliberate policy, clandestinely driving settlement expansion to the point of irreversibility while pretending to search for “a Palestinian partner for peace.”
He ignores the repeated offers by Israeli leaders since the Oslo Accords in 1993 to cede almost all of the West Bank. He also ignores Israel’s well-grounded fear that the Palestinian intention is to use concessions gained diplomatically as part of the old Palestine Liberation Organization’s “staged process” for dismantling the Jewish state. Both Hamas and Fatah, just in the past year, re-affirmed their commitment never to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This conforms to the oft-stated and acted upon Arab determination to annihilate Israel that existed prior to 1967, when the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were under Arab rule. Yet Siegman castigates only Israel.
Siegman’s purpose is clear, to undermine American support for Israel. He writes,
Sooner or later the White House, Congress and the American public–not to speak of a Jewish establishment that is largely out of touch with the younger Jewish generation’s changing perceptions of Israel’s behavior–will have to face the fact that America’s “special relationship” with Israel is sustaining a colonial enterprise.
As with his earlier prognostication — that engagement with Hamas will open new possibilities for peace — Siegman is wrong once again. Just as responsible American policymakers understood that engaging with Hamas would be a mistake, his prescription of “forceful outside intervention” is unlikely to gain much traction here. America and American Jewry, in particular, will not terminate the special US-Israeli relationship, in part because they are not fooled by Siegman’s false portrayal of Israel as a colonial enterprise.