The Palestinians Are Not ISIS

Published on Haaretz

Since the Paris attacks, Netanyahu and other Israeli right-wingers have ramped up their equation between ISIS and Palestinian terror attacks. But this strategy is wrong-headed, exploitative and suicidal for Israel.

In the wake of the ISIS attacks on Paris, Israel’s top leadership, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down, has been equating ISIS with Palestinian terror, and calling on the west to repudiate both with equal fervor, and in the process, renounce the causes they claim to represent.

But it is in Israel’s existential interest to insist on the exact opposite: that there is a clear difference between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the battle between ISIS and the West.

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While we in Israel are also victims of murderous, extremist Islam, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ultimately resolvable. It is not a clash of civilizations, as the confrontation with ISIS has been framed, not least by ISIS itself; it is a turf war over territory, control of that territory and the possible division of that territory, to which Islamic extremism has appended itself, first in its Palestinian forms, and more recently in its global incarnations.
Instead of reminding the world of this critical distinction, our leaders have been flailing about to exploit the ISIS attacks on innocent Parisians to garner international support for Israeli settlements.

“In Israel, as in France, terrorism is terrorism,” Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page in response to the ISIS attack. “It is the terrorists who are to blame for terrorism.” Indeed, every human being has agency, and must be responsible for his or her decision to try to advance a cause through violence, no matter how misguided. And as much as I have sympathy for Palestinian aspirations for statehood, terrorism is never justified.

But the claim that terrorism’s “motivation is radical Islam and a desire for destruction,” only applies in some cases in the local context, since Palestinian terror is not exclusively linked to Islam, and never has been.

Terrorists are often glorified, an appalling practice, and one directly linked to the dearth of heroes in Palestinian society, but terror is not seen by all Palestinians as part of a cosmic battle leading to Armageddon, but rather as an instrumental means to an end. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, for example, collaborated with Israel to clamp down on Palestinian terror after witnessing the damage wrought by the Second Intifada to his own cause, which led to the deaths of far more Palestinians than Israeli Jews, and harmed Palestinian standing in the world.

But the real thrust of Israel’s efforts to promote solidarity in victimhood between Israel and France is the claim that it “is not the territories, not the settlements and not any other thing,” that causes terrorism, or as Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely put it : “Settlements were never the issue.” This argument, which is intended to reduce the international pressure on Israel to stop settlement building, and to remove the issue of settlements from the political debate about how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, persuades no one outside of Israeli right wing circles.

For more than two decades, the Palestinians themselves, and the Israeli, Palestinian and American or European partners to our intermittent negotiations, have told us that settlements, along with the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, have been the major obstacles to peace. There are specific issues that have appeared intractable, although a few times it seemed they were almost resolved: a recent Israeli television documentary revealed just this month how close Israelis and Palestinians were during Ehud Olmert’s tenure as PM to resolving these supposedly insurmountable disagreements.

With ISIS on our northern and southern borders, Hamas running Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel is surrounded by Islamic extremists who would like to destroy the Jewish state. But neither Hamas nor Hezbollah is ISIS. We may abhor them but we negotiate with them. While we are attacked by Islamic extremists, and while ISIS may be making inroads among desperate young Palestinians, Palestinian society is still predominantly Western and deeply ambivalent about jihadi ideology, with large sectors opposing it.

Western leaders do not condone Palestinian terror, but they also do not put Israel-Palestine in the same category as the ISIS fantasy of supplanting the West by murdering or enslaving Christians, Shia Moslems, Sunni Moslems who do not join them, Yazidis , Jews and anybody else who gets in their way. They have been unresponsive to Israeli government calls for sympathy and unity, because like most Israelis, they know the conflicts are different. Of course it does not help that our leaders have been mocking European leaders and spurning their overtures to stop settlement building and advance the peace process for years.

Without justifying terror or absolving terrorists of their absolute responsibility, we know Israeli policy contributes to the conditions in which Palestinian children answer the sickening call to murder Jews and martyr themselves; witness the Netanyahu-led chorus telling Palestinians that they will never have their own state, or the increasingly frequent closures of the Temple Mount, and pilgrimages by Jewish nutcases who want to build the Third Temple in the company of government officials and Knesset members, not to mention the daily abuses of the Occupation.

Why would any responsible Israeli leader reject the framing of the conflict in terms that are resolvable rather than those that lead only to war and bloodshed without end? The real framing of the conflict is that Israel should be trying to resolve hard, thorny disagreements with the Palestinians that will require painful concessions, rather than a framing inspired by ISIS: that Israel is at war with radical Islam in a battle to the death of one of the competing civilizations.

No friend of Israel should adopt this apocalyptic and suicidal worldview, and certainly not to advance the settlement enterprise.

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