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Stop Begging the Question

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In its technical sense, “begging the question” is an informal fallacy where what requires proof is instead simply adopted, without question, as an underlying assumption.

When it comes to discussion about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, nowhere is “begging the question” more prominently demonstrated than in the assumption that, if only Israel would make the right compromising moves, a two-state solution would emerge because, after all, that’s what the Palestinians want.

At least that’s what the Palestinians say they want, while they complain that Israel’s “brutal occupation,” settlement expansion, and general intransigence stand in the way.

Most liberal-minded Western journalists tend to take the “underdog” Palestinians at their word about their devotion to a two-state solution and rarely, if ever, bother to question its validity. Hence, they habitually “beg the question.”

The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen’s “Why Israel Still Refuses to Choose” (Oct. 28), is just one of the latest illustrations of this question-begging tendency.
“Palestinians — whether in Israel proper, where the 1.5 million Arab citizens make up about 17 percent of a population of 8.5 million, or in the West Bank, where they number about 2.6 million — are tired of the humiliations, big and small, that Israel dishes out. How, they wonder, can anything resembling a state ever be fashioned from their countless little self-administering enclaves on the West Bank broken up by Israeli settlements?” Cohen writes.
It’s not just Netanyahu and the Right that Cohen blames for the impasse. The Centre / Centre-Left is implicated as well, going back to the founding days of Israel, according to Cohen: “David Ben-Gurion was right when he observed in 1949 that, ‘When the matter is dragged out — it brings us benefits.’ Policy since then has been pretty consistent: Create facts on the ground; break the Arabs’ will through force; push for as much of the biblical Land of Israel between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River as possible.”

Cohen interrupts his indictment of Israeli ‘maximalists’ (of the Right and Left) to note, almost in passing, that demographic concerns over endless occupation have led to “periodic stabs at a two-state peace, most conspicuously the Oslo accords of 1993.” But Cohen doesn’t even bother to mention why they failed (this would force him to confront the inconvenient fact of Palestinian rejectionism); and, in any event, by calling Israeli-generated peace efforts “stabs,” he seeks at least to minimize their importance and intent if not to dismiss them outright as not serious.

This leads Cohen right back to his principle target: “Netanyahu will one day have to tell Israelis if he wants a big binational state or a smaller Jewish-majority state side by side with a Palestinian state. He is trying his best to avoid making the choice, keeping millions of Palestinians in limbo.”
There, in a nutshell, is Cohen’s question-begging thesis: it’s all up to Israel. If only Israel would allow it, would make the “choice” to have it, a Palestinian state alongside Israel would emerge as a natural outcome.

True, Cohen faults Mahmoud Abbas and the PA for poor governance, lack of accountability, and infighting with Hamas. Yet, compared with Israel’s mostly uninterrupted historical pursuit of “Greater Israel,” these are minor failings on the road to Palestinian statehood.

Again, in Cohen’s view, the path to Palestinian statehood rests with Israel, not with the Palestinians.

And it’s precisely that assumption that’s wrong and proved wrong by what Cohen conveniently ignores: the repeated rejection by the Palestinians of Israel’s good-faith efforts (at Camp David in 2000 and during the Annapolis talks in 2008) to create a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.

The sad, indeed tragic, fact is that the Palestinians have rejected Israel’s offers because they refuse to accept today what they’ve always refused to accept: Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people; in short, they refuse the idea embodied in the 1947 UN Partition Plan of two states for two peoples. It’s this (often violent) rejectionism, that, more than any other factor (including Israeli settlements), lies at the heart of the failure to create a Palestinian state. In other words, it’s a self-inflicted wound borne of Palestinian intolerance and refusal to compromise.

While Cohen goes on to warn against international diplomatic “peace initiatives,” – since these, in Cohen’s view, would take the onus of creating a Palestinian state off Israel’s shoulders – he (inconsistently) doesn’t oppose the possibility that Barak Obama could “present America’s principles for a two-state outcome in a Security Council resolution that sets out how Israel and Palestine would look in their ‘final status.’” The latter is quite okay with Cohen since, as he notes, Israel is “strongly opposed” to the prospect.

Yet Israel is also opposed to all such outside efforts – whether U.S.-led or EU-led or UN-led – that would seek to impose terms at Israel’s expense while absolving the Palestinians of their responsibilities to compromise with Israel as outlined in UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 – foremost their need to negotiate directly with Israel and on terms that will bring the conflict to a conclusion once and for all.

The sooner the international community starts encouraging Palestinian leadership to engage in direct negotiations with Israel – and bring to the table a willingness to compromise, which Israel has done repeatedly – the sooner a two-state solution, which remains the ideal goal, might stand a chance of becoming a reality.

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