Trump’s fatal mistake: Ignoring Palestinian identity and dignity

The proposal offered by U.S. President Donald Trump to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had a major fatal problem. With a smiley Israeli caretaker prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu standing next to him, Trump could have said almost everything that Palestinians wanted in a peace plan and still it would have been rejected because of this glaring flaw. Trump and company failed to understand or reflect the importance of dignity and national identity to Palestinians.

For decades Palestinians fought against both colonial powers, Israelis, Arabs and international parties who tried to bypass them and make deals on behalf of Palestinians or look for proxies to represent the Palestinian people.

After years of conflict and sacrifice, the Arab Summit in Rabat resolved in 1974 that the Palestine Liberation Organization is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Israeli attempts in the 1980s to prop up the Village Leagues as the an alternative representative of Palestinians in the West Bank failed miserably. By 1987 the Palestinian intifada broke out and the Israeli attempts to crush the first intifada and to deny Palestinians the right to choose their leadership also badly failed. The underground intifada leadership pointed to the PLO then based in Tunis as their legitimate representative. Even Israel’s assassination in 1988 of Palestinian leaders including the well-beloved Khalil al Wazir (Abu Jihad) failed to stop Palestinian desire to have their own representatives at the negotiating table.

Later, the attempts of the international community at the Madrid Peace conference to create a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to the talks failed to produce results while the back-track talks between the PLO and the Israelis produced the 1993 Declaration of Principles commonly known as the Oslo accords. Before that important document was signed at the White House lawn, both sides exchanged letters of recognition, the PLO recognized Israel while Israel recognized the PLO as representing Palestinians.

Both the PLO and later the Palestinian Authority born out of the Oslo process, have not often performed well. But for Palestinians, the idea that anyone other than the agreed-to Palestinian representatives can decide the future and sign the dotted line was and is totally unacceptable.

The absence of Palestinians at the Washington unveiling of Trump’s vision was clearly the most visible problem of that deal. As Palestinian representative to the United Kingdom Hussam Zumlot said: “that Trump can’t speak on behalf of the Palestinians, especially while standing next to Netanyahu, whose government kills and besieges the Palestinians.”

The paternalistic and racist attitude of the American and Israeli leaders if often expressed in the way they look down at Palestinians and their rights. One of the worst examples of that was the attempts by US ambassador to Israel David Friedman’s attempt to try and justify to a reporter from Times of Israel why Israel gets to carry out its annexation immediately while Palestinians get their state after four years and if they ‘prove’ themselves.

“This is a completely asymmetric relationship,” Friedman said of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. “Israel is a democracy. You can hold it to its word. It has an enormous relationship with the United States on multiple levels and that relationship is very solid. It is in a position today to keep its part of the bargain.” By contrast, the Palestinians are currently “not in a position to keep any bargain,” Friedman said. “The Palestinians are not united. Their government is not democratic. Their institutions are weak. Their respect for all types of norms that we hold dear — not just democracy but human rights, freedom of religion, freedom of the press — is nonexistent.”

This is strange, considering that the one issue that Israel and the US care about is security and on that level, the Palestinians, have performed splendidly according to Israeli and US security officials.

By downgrading the rights of Palestinians because they don’t have a state while praising a country that has ruled by sheer military power over four million Palestinians for decades to be “the country that respects democracy and upholds human rights” is the ultimate in the arrogance of power and racism.

The issue of Palestinian dignity is not restricted to the problem clearly signaled in the absence of their representation in Washington on January 28th. The issue of identity has been the core of Palestinian nationalism for over a century. During the British colonial era in the aftermaths of World War I, the symbol of the peasant farmers the keffiyeh became the symbol of Palestinian revolutionaries much later popularized by the PLO leader Yaser Arafat. At that time the keffiyeh replaced that of the tarbush (red hat) of the hated landowners who were making it easier for Zionist emigres to buy Palestinian land thus making room for the Jewish newcomers whose aims were to uproot Palestinians to create their Jewish state in Palestine.

Perhaps the best known Palestinian artists and his best-known work was Suleiman Mansour’s Jerusalem porter in which a ragged Palestinian is carrying the old city of Jerusalem on his back and Ismael Shamout’s “the grandfather” depiction in the aftermaths of the nakbeh (Palestinian name of the catastrophe of the refugee exile and loss of Palestine in 1948).

Palestinian national identity has become the main concentration of cultural, musical, cinematic, theatrical and communal identity. One of the most recent examples of that was the keffiyeh wielding Mohammad Assaf won the coveted Arab idol musical competition in 2013 aired throughout the Arab world on television only to have the first person to congratulate him none other than president Abbas. Four years later, Bethlehem Christian Palestinian Yacoub Shaheen won the same award in 2017 as thousands followed him on big screens erected at the Nativity square in Bethlehem, highlighting the multi-religious nature of Palestinian nationalism.

As of 2019, Palestine has submitted twelve films to the Foreign Oscar competition and received two Oscar nominations. One for Paradise Now by Elia Suleiman in 2006, and one for Omar in 2013 by director Hanna Abu Asaad.

These iconic symbols show that ignoring Palestinians was not limited to keeping them away from the Washington unveiling but a shunning for two major items important to Palestinians, Jerusalem, and refugees. The Americans denying any serious role for Palestinians in Jerusalem and totally denying the UN guaranteed rights of not even a single Palestinian refugee to return again snubs Palestinian dignity on issues they hold very sacred.

Palestinians badly need peace and need to be recognized as the owners of their own fate. Every attempt to force down Palestinian throats a deal that clearly favors the powerful is a repetition of the unacceptable concept that might is right. The record shows that Palestinian leaders have been willing to accept serious and deep compromises but the one compromise that they will not accept to make is to give up their rights to represent themselves. Any attempts to bypass Palestinians will only produce the opposite result.

Palestinian journalist, former Ferris Professor at Princeton U., established @AmmanNet. Contributor to

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