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Op-Ed: It’s not the economy in Palestinian-Israel conflict

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A colloquial Hebrew expression says "not every day is Purim," which can be translated loosely to "you can’t fool all the people all the time."

Israelis — and many in our pro-Israel community in the United States — in the past wanted to believe that Palestinian economic development was the path to
resolving Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians: If only the Palestinians had full stomachs and some cash in their pockets, they would forget about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, about their land being gradually eaten up by Israeli settlements, about their aspirations for independence and sovereignty being ignored.

History and common sense have taught us how wrong that thinking was. The lessons are as compelling today as ever.

In August 1987, the Israeli military government in the West Bank and Gaza published a fancy brochure boasting the achievements of 20 years of Israeli "Civil Administration." The 110-page booklet contrasted the prosperous, smiling Palestinians of 1987, in color, with the black-and-white photos of the underdeveloped territories in 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

The brochure was not factually wrong. In fact, there was a dramatic improvement in the Palestinians’ standard of living under Israeli rule. But there was also a dramatic increase in national sentiments, which were nurtured in part by the occupation.

Three months after the booklet was printed, Palestinians took to the street in an uprising that lasted years. They escalated their struggle and persevered despite the terrible economic toll that the intifada took on them. The Palestinian uprising was such a strong statement, such a slap in the face to Israel’s improving-the-Palestinians-quality-of -life strategy, that the Civil Administration rushed to recall the booklets.

A friend who served at the time at the Israel military government’s headquarters in the West Bank told me that all Civil Administration offices were ordered to return any copies they had and that all remaining copies were destroyed.

More than 20 years later there are still those who speak about an "economic peace" and focusing on better living conditions in the West Bank while intentionally obscuring the Palestinians’ desire to live in a state of their own.

Palestinians won’t buy it. Neither should Israelis. Both Palestinians and Israelis know full well that the conflict between them is political and must be resolved politically, in the context of a historic compromise over land, natural resources, sovereignty and historical rights.

Encouragingly, the Obama administration doesn’t seem to be buying into the "economic peace" approach. Special Mideast envoy George Mitchell, briefing U.S. Jewish organizational leaders last month, explicitly rejected the notion that focusing only on the economic dimension, absent political progress, could advance the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace. You can’t have economic development while shutting the door in the face of any diplomatic progress, he said.

President Obama and his foreign policy aides will have to deal soon with an Israeli prime minister who advocates this approach. While paying lip service to diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians, Benjamin Netanyahu would not even endorse the ultimate goal of a two-state solution. Netanyahu says that he will continue talks with the Palestinian Authority but that progress is possible only with regards to improving everyday life in the West Bank. Palestinians can, perhaps, aspire to some limited autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza.

American friends of Israel may have to decide soon whether we play along with Netanyahu’s Purim shpiel or support the Obama administration’s sober approach toward advancing peace with the Palestinians.

As we face this decision, we should remember that Israelis and Palestinians want and deserve to free themselves from the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians deserve to live in dignity in a state of their own, free from the tyranny of a foreign occupation. And Israelis deserve to have secure and recognized borders, which would redefine the State of Israel with a solid Jewish majority as the truly democratic and Jewish state that Israel aspires to be for years to come.

We should remember: Purim is celebrated once a year.

(Ori Nir, the spokesman of Americans for Peace Now, used to cover Palestinian affairs for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.)

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