Monday, June 23, 2008

Bennis: Changing the Discourse on Palestine

This analysis by Phyllis Bennis is noteworthy because it reinforces the point that both Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe made in an article posted recently on JPN ( criticisms of Israeli policies are becoming more visible and more acceptable. She credits both the work of Jimmy Carter as well as the grassroots work of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation. This is certainly encouraging news, and good reason to keep up the work of organizing on this issue.

Judith Norman

Phyllis Bennis
Institute for Policy Studies, 17 June 2008


We are in the midst of the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the nakba, the Arabic word for "catastrophe," which is how Palestinians describe the events if 1947-49. During that time 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homeland in what Israelis celebrate as the "war of independence." They were never, despite the requirements of international law and UN resolutions that Israel agreed to implement, allowed to go home.

The nakba has been commemorated every year since. Certainly the usual triumphalism of the AIPAC conference, with its annual parade of politicians making obeisance to Israeli occupation and apartheid policies did not change. But outside of AIPAC, what was different this year was that the massive media coverage of the overall celebration of the Israeli anniversary and the U.S.-Israeli "special relationship" actually acknowledged and gave voice to the nakba as a legitimate component of the narrative. Certainly the mainstream press did not give equal voice to Palestinian suffering or Palestinian rights, but there was a visible and audible breach in the once-unchallenged triumphalism of Israel's creation. There was widespread recognition that Palestinian voices had to be heard, and the recognition included all three components of the divided Palestinian nation - Palestinian refugees in their far-flung diaspora, those living under occupation in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem,
Palestinian citizens of Israel. AIPAC and Israel are no longer the sole proprietors of the Israel-Palestine narrative in the U.S.

Significantly, the change in discourse was powerful enough to reach UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon, who has consistently endorsed Washington's efforts to protect Israel from being held accountable for its violations of international law. The same day Ban called the Israeli prime minister to congratulate him on the 60 anniversary, he also called Palestinian Authority president to express his support for the Palestinian people after 60 years of the nakba. That announcement was enough to cause Israel's deputy ambassador to the United Nations to demand that the word nakba be banned from the UN, complaining that the very term nakba "is a tool of Arab propaganda used to undermine the legitimacy of the establishment of the State of Israel, and it must not be part of the lexicon of the UN."

The shift in discourse is huge, reflecting the massive change in public discussion of this issue that has been underway for the past year or more. Former president Jimmy Carter, both in his book's using "apartheid" to describe Israeli policy towards Palestine, and in his courageous decision to meet with Hamas officials in defiance of U.S.- Israeli efforts to isolate Gaza and the Islamist organization, has played a huge part. So has the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation - a coalition of more than 250 organizations whose recent "Expressions of Nakba" art competition brought in more than 300 entries from around the world. According to the Campaign's advocacy director, Josh Ruebner, "Israel's effort to ban the use of the word nakba at the UN is an act of desperation. They are obviously incredibly threatened by the precariousness of their international standing. So we should view this attempt as a victory for us in our efforts to delegitimize its policies." (I urge people to
go to the Campaign website - - and take a look at the incredible photos of the nakba commemoration including the "mobile billboard" that circled the Washington DC celebration of Israel's anniversary and the AIPAC conference...)

The discourse has also widened on the still difficult but much less contentious debate over one state or two states. The one-state view (transforming what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories into a single democratic and secular or bi-national state based on one person-one vote) remains a minority position. But there is growing realization that the continuing U.S.-supported expansion of Israeli settlements, land confiscations and the apartheid wall are about to or have already rendered a viable two-state option impossible. The two-state/one-state debate is increasingly part of mainstream Palestinian, international, and even some Israeli discourse. And the mere existence of the debate has helped in the process of transforming the discourse on the entire "question of Palestine."

(Full disclosure: I continue to believe that the role of non-Palestinian supporters of Palestinian rights in the U.S. should focus on changing U.S. policy away from support for Israel's occupation and apartheid policies, and towards a policy supporting an end to occupation and equal rights for all - with full equality both within and between the one, two or six states chosen by Palestinians and Israelis themselves. That is the position of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation, which I continue to serve on the steering committee. But my own personal view, throughout 30 years of working on this issue, is that a democratic, secular democratic state with equal rights for all has always represented a far more just solution for Palestinians, Israelis and everyone else.)

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her latest books include Iran in the Crosshairs: How to Avoid Washington's Next War.

Institute for Policy Studies, 16 June, 2008

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