By Bret Stephens
Do the people chanting “Free Palestine” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” have any idea of the irreparable harm they’re doing to any hope of Palestinian sovereignty?
For decades, the question of a Palestinian state has come down to two dates: 1948 and 1967. Most Western supporters of Palestinian statehood have argued that the key date is the Six-Day War of June 1967, when Israel, faced with open threats of annihilation, took possession of the Golan Heights, the West Bank, east Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula.
According to this line of thinking, the way to peace rested on Arab diplomatic recognition of Israel in exchange for the return of these so-called occupied territories. That’s what happened between Egypt and Israel at Camp David in 1978, and what might have happened at Camp David in 2000 if Yasser Arafat had only accepted the offer of full statehood made to him by Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel.
Yet there has always been a second narrative, which dates “the occupation” not to 1967 but to 1948, when Israel came into being as a sovereign state. By this argument, it isn’t just east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights that are occupied by Israel: It’s Haifa, Tel Aviv, Eilat and west Jerusalem, too. For Palestine to be “liberated,” Israel itself must end.
Starting in the 1970s, the 1948ers were known as the “rejectionist front.” More recently, they have become the “axis of resistance.” Membership includes Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Assad regime in Syria and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard — a who’s who of designated terrorist groups and their state sponsors.
On Oct. 7, the axis of resistance became the face of the Palestinian movement. On Oct. 8, demonstrators around the world chose to embrace that axis. Sometimes they did so unwittingly, believing there was no contradiction between being pro-Palestinian and supporting Israel’s right to exist, or not understanding the implications of the slogans they were chanting.
But just as often they have done so wittingly. When Mohamed Khairullah, the mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, said “75 years of occupation is too long” at an October rally, he was embracing the 1948 narrative. When Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., posted that “75 years later, the Nakba continues to this day” and declined to accept Israel as a Jewish state, she was embracing it. When Judith Butler, a Berkeley professor, told an interviewer that “the roots of the problem are in a state formation that depended on expulsions and land theft to establish its own ‘legitimacy’” and supported a binational state, she was embracing it. When the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter responded to the Oct. 7 massacres with a Facebook post claiming, “When a people have been subject to decades of apartheid and unimaginable violence, their resistance must not be condemned, but understood as a desperate act of self-defense,” it was embracing it. When the BBC Arabic service repeatedly described ordinary Israelis as “settlers,” it was embracing it.
Such embraces have consequences.
For one, they put a growing fraction of the progressive left objectively on the side of some of the worst people on Earth — and in radical contradiction with their self-professed values.
“A left that, rightly, demands absolute condemnation of white-nationalist supremacy refuses to dissociate itself from Islamist supremacy,” Susie Linfield, a professor of journalism at New York University, wrote in an important recent essay in the online journal Quillette. “A left that lauds intersectionality hasn’t noticed that Hamas’ axis of support consists of Iran, famous most recently for killing hundreds of protesters demanding women’s freedom.”
For another, they reinforce the central convictions and deepest fears of the Israeli right: that Palestinians have never reconciled themselves to the existence of Israel in any borders; that every Israeli territorial or diplomatic concession is seen by Palestinians as evidence of weakness; that a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank would only serve as a launchpad for an intensified assault on Israel; that every criticism of Israeli policies in the occupied territories veils a deep-seated hatred of the Jewish state.
When the left embraces the zero-sum politics of Palestinian resistance, it merely encourages the zero-sum politics of hard-core Israeli settlers and their supporters.
A third consequence is that it abandons the Palestinian people to their worst leaders. It’s bad enough that the West has long accepted, and funded, Mahmoud Abbas’ repressive kleptocracy based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. But what Hamas has given the people over whom it rules is infinitely worse: theocratic despotism, soaked in the blood of Palestinian “martyrs,” most of whom never signed themselves or their families up to serve as human shields in an endless — and in the long run, hopeless — battle with Israel.
It’s fine for Israel’s harshest critics to ask hard questions of Israel’s leaders. But when those same critics stop asking equally hard questions of Palestinian leaders, they are not advocating a cause. They are merely submitting to a regime.
The world, including Israel, has a common interest in an eventual Palestinian state that cares more about building itself up than tearing its neighbors down; that invests its energy in future prosperity, not past glory; that accepts compromise and rejects fanaticism. Since Oct. 7, the loudest self-professed champions of the Palestinian cause have advocated the precise opposite. It may be a recipe for smug self-satisfaction, but it’s also how to kill a Palestinian state.