The widely accepted false narrative of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict is built on the following premises:
Israel stole and now occupies Palestinian territory;
there are millions of “Palestinian refugees” who have a “right of
return” to Israel;
Israel and the Palestinians have equal or comparable claims to Jerusalem;
the Palestinian community and its leadership are ready to accept a
two-state solution that will end Palestinian efforts to eliminate the Jewish
The US has consistently either supported or been
unwilling to contradict these premises.
Palestinian leaders have an additional false view on
which they insist when they speak in Arabic, and which they often proclaim to
international audiences. This view is that the Jewish people did not, in fact,
live in and rule parts of Palestine, including Jerusalem, for hundreds of years
long before the beginning of Islam. While this false claim is not generally
accepted diplomatically, UNESCO recently endorsed the fiction that the ancient
Jewish temples were not built on the Temple Mount – a site UNESCO calls
“al-Aqsa Mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif" (Noble Sanctuary).
This Palestinian false history is not challenged by
the US or by any other democracy. Had the US utilized an active strategy of
telling the truth, the Palestinians would not have been able to continue to use
their false picture to resist peace.
Rejecting false premises does not mean rejecting a
peace agreement based on a two-state solution. The truth is compatible with a
variety of ideas about what should be done in the future. Those who support a
two-state solution can also support a strategy of telling the truth, as can
those who doubt the feasibility of a two-state solution.
US policy has always been to ignore, and sometimes
even to support, the falsity of these diplomatically accepted narratives in
order to avoid contradicting the Palestinians and arousing the wrath of the Arab
and Muslim nations. This longstanding American willingness to put reality aside
to try to encourage negotiations has been unsuccessful thus far, and has become
For many years, US policy was to appear
“even-handed” even at the expense of truth – that is, to be superficially
even-handed between the arsonist and the firefighter, the terrorist and the
victim of terror. Washington should switch to an even-handed policy of
supporting truth, whether it comes from Palestinians or from Israelis: a policy
of rejecting falsehood from both sides.
Of course, many statements are partly true and partly
false, and often there are good reasons for different opinions about what is
true. But there would be a great improvement in the diplomatic environment if
the US took the lead in rejecting the most important and clearly false elements
of diplomatic consensus.
A truth-telling strategy does not mean being absurd
by always insisting on truth. The realities of human nature, and of politics and
international relations, require substantial room for untruth. The US government
cannot and should not act like an innocent who expects everyone to always tell
the truth, and who views not doing so as evil.
The biggest falsehood the US needs to expose is that
there exists “Palestinian territory” that Israel refuses to “give back”
because of its expansionist ambitions and purported security needs. It is
controversial, rather than a falsehood, to say that justice and peace require
Israel to turn over to a Palestinian state essentially all the land it seized in
its defensive war in 1967. But there is a big difference between the
controversial statement that the West Bank should become Palestinian territory
as part of a peace agreement and the false statement that these areas are now,
or ever were in the past, Palestinian territory.
The distinction between saying that the West Bank
(including East Jerusalem) is Palestinian territory and saying that it should
become Palestinian territory is important for both the past and the future. For
the past, the statement that the West Bank is Palestinian means that Israel
stole land that was not Jewish and should “give it back.” For the future,
the distinction determines whether Israeli proposals to provide land for a
Palestinian state are returning stolen property or are offers to give up
disputed land to which it has serious claims, in order to make a healthy peace
with its neighbor. From the Palestinian point of view, it differentiates between
an immoral submission to a thief who has more power and a wise compromise with
neighbors who have overlapping claims of right.
A US truth-telling strategy would not ignore
Palestinian assertions about “Palestinian land,” but would point out that
the land in question is disputed. It is not Palestinian territory – despite US
acceptance of a UNSC resolution that refers to it as such – because there
is no Palestinian territory and never has been. Palestinians have never ruled or
been sovereign over any land. This is an indisputable fact, not a question of
policy or interpretation.
The West Bank is disputed territory: it is territory
for which Israel has historic and legal claims based on League of Nations
resolutions endorsed by the US government in the 1920s and confirmed in Article
80 of the UN Charter. The most recent sovereigns before the West Bank came into
dispute were the British Mandate from the League of Nations to promote a Jewish
national home (1922-48) and the Ottoman Empire (1517-1917).
Individual Palestinians certainly own much land in
the disputed area, just as they own land in Israel, in the US, and elsewhere.
But ownership of land by individual Palestinians does not make it Palestinian
territory, either in Nablus or in New York.
Palestinian national rights to the land do not come
from international law, but from a principle that has become widely accepted
over the last century: that the people who live in an area should govern it. But
this principle is not automatic and self-executing. Implementing it presents
difficulties that require exceptions (or else east Boston would have become part
of Ireland). Who the majority is in an area depends on how the borders are
drawn. For example, Israelis are the great majority of the population of Area C
in the West Bank – a Jewish majority that was not created by removing Arabs.
The second most important part of a new truth-telling
strategy would be to expose how the Arabs have abused what they call the
“Palestinian refugees” in order to maintain them as a weapon for destroying
Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
The politely accepted story in diplomatic circles is
that there are nearly 5 million “Palestinian refugees” from 1948, more than
a million still living in UNRWA “refugee camps” because Israel refuses to
let them return home despite the “right of return” granted them by the UN
The reality is that
only some 50,000 of the “Palestinian refugees” are refugees as the world
defines the term. The others are descendants of refugees who have died. The Palestinian
leadership and the Arab states have prevented these descendants, who never lived
in Israel, from settling and living normal lives in any Arab state (except
Furthermore, UNGA Resolution 194 did not, in fact or
in law, grant the right of return to all refugees, and would have had no
authority to do so even if it had tried.
It is widely recognized in private that the Arab
insistence on the “right of return” does not come from concern over the
wellbeing of the “refugees,” who have not been given any choice about their
unfortunate status. The miseries imposed on them for three generations are the
result of the Arab world’s decision to prevent their resettlement in the hope
that someday, Israel will be forced to take in so many “refugees” that it
cannot continue to be both Jewish and democratic.
The false diplomatic story with which the US has been
playing along for generations is that the Arab position on the “right of
return” is a plausible negotiating position that might prevail in the final
stage of peace talks. The issue should not yet be addressed, so the thinking
goes, because it is so hard to resolve. The truth, which is widely understood in
the diplomatic community although no country will admit it publicly, is that the
“refugees” do not have any real legal “right of return,” and Israel
cannot allow them to move to its territory if it is to survive. It is well
understood that the “right of return” is a weapon to destroy Israel, not a
normal negotiating demand that can be compromised.
A truth-telling strategy would declare that peace
depends on finally settling the “refugees,” and that it is needless cruelty
to keep them in refugee camps and without normal citizens’ rights any longer.
The US should start the process of closing down
UNRWA, the UN agency that has made it possible to conceal the truth about
Palestinian “refugees.” And it should be made clear to the Palestinians that
they will never get international support for the notion of forcing Israel to
take in millions of Palestinians.
It should be noted that the Israeli government has
favored continued support for UNRWA. This is one of a number of instances where
the government of Israel has chosen to appease international opinion rather than
use the truth to defy it. It is time for Israel too to move away from such
appeasement, which has not worked.
The more sophisticated diplomatic discussion of how
peace might be negotiated asserts that the “refugee” issue does not prevent
peace, because the Palestinian leadership already understands that no more than
a token fraction of refugees will ever be allowed to move to Israel. The
“refugees” will have to be satisfied with apologies and compensation – a
premise widely acknowledged but never uttered out loud.
Diplomats around the world, particularly in the US,
privately understand that Israel cannot and should never be forced to take in
millions of “Palestinian refugees.” But no one says so officially, or tells
that to the Palestinians. A truth-telling strategy would hold that it is time to
say openly what everyone knows to be true.
Telling the truth that there is no “right of
return” leaves open the question of compensation for Palestinian refugees from
Israel and for Jewish refugees from the Arab countries. This does not have to be
an obstacle to peace. It is indisputable that the creation of Israel led to at
least as many Jewish refugees from Arab countries as Palestinian refugees from
Israel. And the Jewish refugees, who were all resettled without international
help (mostly in Israel), were forced to leave behind more assets than did the
A much less important, but highly symbolic, piece of
American truth-telling will be moving the US embassy in Israel to the
country’s capital, Jerusalem. The US can further increase its truth-telling by
allowing the passports of American citizens born in Jerusalem to record the fact
that they were born in Israel. At present, Washington is unwilling to allow this
truth to appear in American passports.
Because the US has been willing to ignore these
truths for so long, there will be great Arab resistance to their being stated in
public. The fiercer their protests, the more the Arabs will demonstrate the cost
of having avoided truth-telling for so long. In the long run, a recognition that
the US has a commitment to the truth will reduce the harm done by violent
protests. Conversely, a policy of avoiding the truth in deference to threatened
violence will lead to more such violence – or to US subservience to the
Jerusalem is a good example of the biased
“even-handedness” that has long characterized the US stance. Official
statements always refer to Jerusalem as sacred to both sides – sometimes
adding that it is sacred to Christians as well – and typically imply that a
fair solution will require equal treatment for Israel and the Palestinians on
Jerusalem. But in reality, there is very little symmetry between the Israeli
and Palestinian connections to Jerusalem.
The al-Aqsa Mosque, which is located in Jerusalem,
has significance for the religion of Islam (although its origins are
controversial) – but it is in no way central. The city of Jerusalem is not
mentioned even once in the Koran, nor in regular Muslim prayers. On the other
hand, Jerusalem is a central feature of the Jewish religion and of daily Jewish
prayer and identity. The climax of every Jewish wedding ceremony is when the
groom breaks a glass to symbolize the exile from Jerusalem and repeats a
quotation from Psalm 137: “If I forget you, o Jerusalem, let my right hand
Jewish and Muslim performance in ruling Jerusalem
since 1948 has also been very different. Under Israeli rule over Jerusalem (West
Jerusalem for 19 years and the entire city for 50 years), there has been freedom
of religion and protection of the holy sites of all religions. During the 19
years of Jordanian rule over East Jerusalem, Jews were not allowed entry even to
the Jewish Quarter, and Jewish religious sites were destroyed.
The religion of Islam takes no notice of Jerusalem as
a city. Muslims have expressed interest in Jerusalem only when it was ruled by
non-Muslims. For over a thousand years of Muslim rule over Jerusalem, it was
never made into the capital of any part of the Muslim empire, not even the local
district. From 1948 to 1967, when it was ruled by Jordan, Jerusalem was treated
as inferior to Amman. By contrast, the city of Jerusalem has always been a major
concern of the Jewish religion and of Jewish identity, including throughout the
nearly 2,000 years during which it was in the hands of others. Israel cannot
survive as a Jewish state without Jerusalem as its capital.
Israeli and Palestinian interests in the future of
Jerusalem are not at all symmetrical. Israel needs Jerusalem to continue to be a
vibrant working city. The Palestinians, by contrast, would make an important
gain in their effort to destroy Israel if they achieved new arrangements for
Jerusalem that allowed its health as a city to be undermined by violent
To follow an even-handed truth-telling strategy about
Jerusalem, the US should state that a fair disposition of the city will
acknowledge it as the capital of Israel, protect the religious concerns of all
religions, and assure that the city’s health will not be jeopardized by
internal conflict. The Palestinian interest in having Jerusalem as the capital
of a new Palestinian state should be satisfied in a way that is consistent with
these three values.
A US truth-telling strategy would also address the
question of whether the Palestinian community and leadership are in fact willing
to make peace with Israel. While there cannot be any indisputable truth about
such a hypothetical and complex question, there is evidence that can be examined
in order to respectfully try to understand the point of view of the
A search for truth would ask why the Palestinian
leadership (both intellectual and political) takes such pains to falsely deny
the ancient Jewish presence in the land. It must be unpleasant and difficult for
informed Palestinians to tell such obvious falsehoods that there never was a
Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (from which Christ could chase the money-changers),
or that Jews did not rule the land for centuries before most of them were exiled
by the Romans 2,000 years ago. This denial of history is not part of the
religion of Islam; it is a recent Palestinian invention. Older Muslim sources
explain that the Dome of the Rock was built on the Temple Mount because it was
the site of the Jewish Temple. One of the traditional Arab names for the Mount
is Bayt al-Maqdis (The Temple).
One plausible explanation why the Palestinian
leadership is so insistent on such an extreme denial of reality is that if the
Palestinian people knew the truth, they might be more willing to accept Israel
on part of the land. This suggests that it might be constructive for the US to
remind the Palestinians that according to Islamic tradition, the Temple Mount
was built by Jews as the site of the Jewish Temple. A public airing of the fact
that there is no doubt that there were ancient Jewish kingdoms in the land a
thousand years before Islam might increase the readiness of the Palestinian
people to make peace with the Jewish people, who share their connection to the
Persistent US truth-telling would so undermine the
Palestinian leadership’s efforts to deny basic historical truths that they
would not be able to continue without embarrassing themselves before their own
people. It would show the Palestinians that the US, and presumably other
democracies, are not prepared to accept blatant falsehoods as justification to
force Israel to accept a Palestinian victory. This would undermine one of the
major Palestinian reasons for thinking they might still be able to destroy
Israel: their hope that it is not too late to remove Israel from the land
completely. That Palestinian hope is the fundamental obstacle to peace.
If we are to gain a truthful answer to the question
whether the Palestinians are now willing to make peace with Israel, we must also
ask the following question: If the Palestinian leadership and public are now
willing to make peace with Israel, when did they change? And what was the
political process that produced the change?
Since before the establishment of Israel, despite the
deep desire of many Palestinians for peace, the Palestinian community and its
leadership were determined not to accept a Jewish state on any terms and were
committed to struggle to destroy it until it was removed from land that had once
been Muslim-ruled. Whatever some Palestinians might have thought or said in
private or in English, any suggestion of a basis for accepting Israel or of
allowing the “refugees” to be settled outside Israel was taboo in Arabic
public discourse for many years.
This is a statement of fact, not an accusation. It
could be disproved if one could point to Arabic public statements to the effect
that it is necessary to end the struggle to destroy Israel, or that a major
share of the “refugees” might not be allowed to enter Israel. There is no
evidence of such statements. Nor can one find many Palestinian political voices
who say such things in Arabic in public. The Palestinian political discourse is
available translated into in English on MEMRI.
Before there can be any major change in Palestinian
policy, there will have to be a sharp public debate among Palestinians.
Certainly there would be strong voices initially rejecting any willingness to
give up the war to destroy Israel or to settle the “refugees” outside of
Israel. This debate would be visible in public channels, and it would be
possible to see which side was eventually forced to retreat.
There has been no such debate. Palestinian discourse
still maintains the taboo against suggesting it is necessary or desirable to
give up the war against Israel on any terms. Nor is it acceptable to discuss the
possibility of some “refugees” not being allowed to move to Israel.
A truth-telling US strategy would not continue to
assume that peace can be negotiated with the Palestinians if Israel makes
appropriate concessions. Truth-telling is consistent with urging negotiations
between Israel and the Palestinians, but not from the position that the success
of those negotiations will depend on what Israel does. A truth-telling strategy
would recognize that agreement on peace can only happen after Palestinians have
public debates about “refugees” and about accepting Israel.
A large edifice built on falsehood has come to define
the diplomatic and policy environment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This
structure of unreality has failed to produce useful results. Perhaps, therefore,
the new US president, who campaigned on making significant changes to US policy,
should adopt a new strategy of truth-telling, which might lead to better
International pressure is one of the main weapons
with which the Palestinians hope to destroy Israel. They will not give up that
goal until it has become clear that there is no way it can succeed.
Demonstrating that the world will no longer pretend to believe Palestinian
falsehoods might lead more Palestinians to see that they have no chance of
eliminating Israel. They might then seek the benefits of peace.
Furthermore, forcing Palestinians to acknowledge
Israel’s historical and moral claim to the land would provide them with an
honorable basis for compromise with Israel. If Israel were a stranger to the
land, simply a colonial power taking Arab land by force, as the Palestinians
falsely argue, it would be cowardly for them to yield.
When the American and European democracies accept
Palestinian falsehoods, it creates a disincentive for the Palestinians and their
supporters to face the realities of their situation. But these realities have to
be the basis of any resolution of the conflict. A truth-telling strategy would
offer a sound long-term foundation on which peace can eventually be built.
Even with a new administration that has promised to
break with the policies of the past, there may not be much chance that the US
will depart radically from its policies of the last 50 years. But whether
Washington alters past positions or not, Israel should advocate a truth-telling
strategy for the US and the other democracies and pursue that strategy itself.
Israel is now
imprisoned by an internationally accepted structure of falsehoods. It is
tactically wiser for Israel to argue for truth-telling than to continue to
appease the international consensus, for example by explaining why settlements
are not the obstacle to peace, or that Israeli security requires that Israel
occupy what people think of as “Palestinian land.”
Israel needs to go on the diplomatic offensive.
Framing its position as an effort to get recognition for the truth is more
likely to get its story heard than simply making demands and claims. And
criticisms of the Palestinians that Israel needs to make to change the
diplomatic consensus will be more effective if they are made as part of a
broader strategy of urging democracies to face the truths about the conflict.
It is politically difficult for the US or other
countries to take positions that are more “pro-Israel” than the positions of
the Israeli government. If Israel would like other states to move toward more
truth-telling about the conflict, it needs to stop holding back from presenting
its own case out of fear that criticism of the Palestinians and assertions of
Israeli rightful claims would seem to conflict with negotiations for peace.
It is notable that the US is thought to be biased in
favor of Israel even though it does not stand for the truths essential to
Israel’s position. Despite its longstanding alliance with Israel, the US under
many presidents has allowed Israel to be forced to operate according to the
international structure of falsehood that now dominates Israel’s diplomatic
position. This policy should be replaced by a truth-telling strategy.
Briefly, some of the main truths that the US has been
denying or ignoring, and that a truth-telling strategy should make prominent in
the international discussion, are:
Although there are good reasons why there should eventually be
“Palestinian territory,” there is not now, and never has been, any such
thing. No territory was “taken from” the Palestinians; nor can any territory
be “given back” to them. They have always lived in territory ruled by
West Jerusalem is located in Israel and is the capital of Israel. The
Palestinian and Israeli connections to Jerusalem are neither equal nor
symmetrical. Jerusalem is demonstrably more important to Israel than it is to
The Jewish people lived in and ruled most of the area of Israel in ancient
times. Israelis did not come to the land as European colonialists; they came as
a people returning to its homeland. Israel’s rule over the land is not based
only on its military strength; it has historical, legal, and moral claims.
The Jewish international legal right to settle in the land from the Jordan
to the Mediterranean Sea was established by the League of Nations’ Mandate in
1922, in recognition of the Jewish People’s millenarian attachment to the Land
of Israel. It is not based on Jewish suffering in the Holocaust.
The claim of a “right of return” for Palestinian “refugees” is not
a humanitarian effort to provide help or justice to those unfortunate
individuals, who are not truly refugees. It is an Arab weapon intended to
destroy Israel via demographic subversion. And it is not a valid legal claim.
Peace between Israel and the Palestinians requires resettling the “refugees”
outside of Israel and ending UNRWA’s mandate. (While this truth is not
indisputable, it is the understanding held by independent and informed people,
most of whom do not publicly say what they personally believe.)
It is not an established truth that the Palestinian leadership and
community have decided to give up the goal of destroying Israel and are ready to
make a peace that accepts Israel if Israel makes appropriate concessions. The
evidence for and against this generally accepted assumption needs to be
examined. Much of it indicates that the Palestinian community is not willing
to make peace with Israel on any terms.
The US should be more genuinely even-handed between
Israel and the Palestinians than it has been in the past. It could advance the
cause of peace by telling the truth. It is not even-handed for the US to let one
side’s systematic falsehoods dominate the diplomatic discussion, when a
truth-telling strategy could make the policy debate more realistic and improve
the long-term prospects for peace.