Khaled Abu Toameh on The Life of a Pro-Israeli Arab-Muslim
Award-winning journalist reveals why the peace process is at a standstill at Restoration Weekend.
Editor’s note: Below are the video and transcript of remarks given by award-winning journalist Khaled Abu Toameh at the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s 2017 Restoration Weekend. The event was held Nov. 16th-19th at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida.
Khaled Abu Toameh: Thank you very much and good morning all of you. I’d like to start by telling you a bit about my work and how I came to Gatestone, and then we’ll talk about more important issues and if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. I’ve been a reporter and a journalist for the last 35 years. I live in Jerusalem, by the way, and I’m an Israeli citizen, although I’m an Arab-Muslim. When people usually ask me how do you define yourself, I usually say I’m an Israeli Arab-Muslim living over there.
Now, I’ve been working for the last 35 years, as I said, as a reporter and as a journalist helping international media cover what happens on the Palestinian side, which means in the West Bank, in Gaza. And for 26 years, I was working with NBC News and BBC and many others until 5 or 6, 7 years ago, I would say. I became very frustrated with mainstream media that I worked with, especially the Western media, and the reason I was unhappy with mainstream media was because many of the stories that we were offering them were being deliberately ignored, and what am I talking about? I’m talking about stories that do not have an anti-Israel angle to them. These are stories that were normally ignored by mainstream media in the West, especially my Western colleagues who used to come there, and that’s where my association with Gatestone began.
I first met my friend Nina Rosenwald in Jerusalem and we were chatting and she asked me, “Why are you so unhappy? What’s going on over here?” And I told her, “Listen, I mean we have a very serious problem. I am offering all these journalists many stories that they do not want to report, mainly, because these stories do not reflect negatively on Israel,“ and she said, “You know what? Give me all the stories that your editors don’t want to publish.” And that’s how we started publishing in Gatestone. I found it to be very helpful because it actually provided a voice for those who do not have a voice over there or those who want to offer the other side of the story. For the mainstream media in the West, the conflict over there in the Middle East is only between good guys and bad guys. The good guys being the poor oppressed Palestinians and the bad guys are the Israelis, and at Gatestone, we have been working very hard in the last few years to offer a different perspective. So Gatestone, I found, provides people like me with a platform to air their views, to express their opinions and as an alternative to places where we could not work, so that’s with regards to Gatestone and Nina Rosenwald, thank you very much.
Now, I’d like to talk about what we call their the situation and offer you my take on what is happening over there and I need to warn you: I don’t have a lot of good news but as someone who covers Palestinian issues, I want to point to two major obstacles that I think we have over there and we will continue to have, and they’re both relate to the Palestinians. Obstacle No. 1 is the absence of education for peace with Israel, which I’m sorry to tell you, it never really existed, and Obstacle No. 2, the absence of leadership on the Palestinian side that is authorized to sign an agreement with Israel. These are the two major reasons why, in the past, we did not move forward with any peace process and why we are unlikely to move forward with any peace process in the near future. I can think of another 12 reasons why peace processes don’t work but in my opinion, the two reasons I just mentioned are the two major obstacles to peace.
Now, let’s take a closer look at these two reasons to try to understand what am I talking about and let’s start with Reason No. 2, the absence of leadership on the Palestinian side. By the way, I’m not saying that in Ramallah and Gaza, we don’t have enough leaders. We actually have too many of them over there. What I’m saying is the following. In the last 30‑plus years that I’ve been traveling back and forth to Ramallah and Gaza, I haven’t been able to find one Palestinian leader who has the courage to stand up and tell his people in Arabic, not in English, in Arabic something along the lines of “Oh, my people, listen, it’s time for compromise, it’s time for painful concessions, we are not going to get from the Jews 100 percent but we might get 95, 94, 93 percent.” If you find me one Palestinian leader who will say something like this in Arabic in front of an Arab audience, please send him to me. That will be a front-page story for tomorrow. We have two Palestinian leaders over there, Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas. Yasser Arafat died in November 2004 and Mahmoud Abbas is still around, at least until 25 minutes ago, last time I checked. In the Middle East, you never know, but anyway, both Palestinian presidents have already shown that they are not authorized to offer Israel even a 1 percent concession in return for peace.
We saw what happened with Yasser Arafat after Camp David, and I remember when he came back to Ramallah, we were sitting there as journalists in his office and one of my colleagues asked him, ”Oh, Mr. President, what happened? Why did Camp David fail?” And Arafat’s response was: ”Oh, Camp David failed for two reasons. First of all, the Jews did not give me 100 percent. Secondly, he added, the Jews wanted me to end the conflict after I get what I get and who am I, Yasser Arafat, to end the conflict. I’m not authorized to give up the right of return. I am not authorized to make any concessions in Jerusalem on behalf of 1.5 billion Muslims. Because if I make such concessions, I will end up drinking tea up there with Anwar Sadat.” Now, translation, I don’t want to go down in history as another Arab traitor who made concessions to the Jews. I even doubted the words “concession” and “compromise” exist in our Arabic dictionary and if they do, then they’re normally associated with very negative connotations, such as retreat, capitulation, surrender, defeat and no one wants to be on that side. You look at this president, Mahmoud Abbas. He’s actually in the same situation, if not worse. Like Yasser Arafat, he too does not have a mandate to negotiate, let alone sign, an agreement with Israel, and how do we know that? I mean the man is now in his 12th or 13th year of his 4‑year term in office, which makes it very problematic and dangerous for Israel and I’ll tell you why. We can laugh at it but if I were Israel, I wouldn’t laugh. Israel can’t today sign a peace agreement with Abu Mazen and give him land. In the future, Palestinians will come to you and say, “Sorry, Israel, you had signed a peace agreement with a president who did not have legitimacy, who was not a rightful leader, so can we please start all over again?“ Then it will be too late for Israel. Why?
First of all, you’ve already given Mahmoud Abbas land that you will not be able to retake and only God and many other people living there know in whose hands that land is going to end up. We’ve been to these movies before and secondly, Israel will find itself in a situation where the peace agreement you signed with President Abu Mazen is not even worth the paper it’s written on and that’s why I keep advising my Israeli Jewish friends over there, if you want to give land, that’s fine, but at least give it to someone who can retain control over it and not someone who’s going to run away handing it over to someone else. We’ve been to these movies before in Gaza. Now, in the case of President Abbas, he, No. 1, does not have a mandate, as we said and No. 2, he doesn’t even have the power to implement an agreement on the ground. The man barely controls Ramallah. He has no control over Palestinians living in Lebanon and Jordan and Syria or East Jerusalem. The man cannot go to Gaza, so where is he supposed to implement a peace agreement if he signs it with Israel? Where, in Tel Aviv? I keep asking.
I meet almost on a regular basis with many U.S. and E.U. officials who come there and I keep asking them the same question. Let’s assume that President Abbas signs a peace agreement with Israel tomorrow, where is he supposed to implement the peace agreement and I’m even embarrassed to tell you what kind of stupid questions I get from very senior people in Washington and in Europe who do not really have an idea of what is really happening over there on the ground and it’s dangerous and also, embarrassing. If I were the Israel prime minister, by the way, Mr. Netanyahu, I would wake up tomorrow morning, Monday, and offer President Mahmoud Abbas 99.5 percent of whatever President Abbas is asking for. We all know what the answer is going to be and I can even publish it without phoning President Abbas’s office. The answer will be one big “no” for two reasons. First of all, simply because it’s not 100 percent and in the Arab world, we want to hear from Israel 100 percent and if Israel can give us 120 percent, that would even be better and if Israel can disappear, that would be the best; and No. 2, President Abbas knows that he cannot come back to his people with anything less than what President Abbas promised his people, which is 100 percent and that’s why we keep revolving in this vicious cycle. Palestinian leaders are making false promises to their people. They’re promising their people things that they cannot fulfill. In other words, they’re lying to their people.
That’s not new, by the way. They’ve become hostage to their own rhetoric but Palestinian leaders are also doing something much more dangerous than that. They are also telling their people that anyone who makes concessions to the Jews is a traitor and an infidel and should be beheaded and hanged and thrown from the 13th floor and 14th floor and burned alive and so on and so on. They are sending these messages to their people through the mosques, through the media and through the rhetoric, and this, my friends, brings me to Obstacle No. 1, the one I mentioned 3 hours ago, and which I inaccurately described as the absence of education for peace with Israel. I’m being very polite and diplomatic by calling it the absence of education for peace with Israel because it’s much worse than that. We’re talking about a massive campaign to delegitimize Israel and dehumanize Jews. It is a campaign that has been around for a long time but you don’t hear about it most of the time because we in the media, in mainstream media, we don’t report about it. It is a campaign that has made it impossible and even dangerous for any Arab to stand up and say, “I want peace with Israel.” Look, I spend a lot of time in Ramallah and Bethlehem working. Can I go out to Ramallah and stand there – and I’m not even talking about Gaza yet – can I go to Ramallah and stand there in a public forum like this and tell a group of Palestinians, “Oh, listen, I think it’s time for us to consider a 2 percent concession to the Jews and maybe we should recognize Israel’s right to exist as the homeland of the Jewish people and maybe it’s time for us to renounce violence and consider some kind of a compromise.” If I do that, and if I’m lucky, I will only be shot in the leg while I’m running away, and I’ve been saying this for some time. If you want to make peace with Israel, you need to prepare your people for peace with Israel.
On the Arab Muslim Palestinian side, not only have we not prepared our people for peace with Israel, we’re doing the exact opposite. If you want to make peace with Israel, you don’t wake up every morning and tell your people, “Oh, listen, the Jews have no historical, religious, emotional attachment to the land,“ and if you want to make peace with Israel, you don’t wake up every 3 hours and tell your people, ”Oh, the Jews are desecrating with their filthy feet our holy sites and there is no such thing as 3,000 or 4,000 years of Jewish history, it’s all fabricated,” and if you want to make peace with Israel, you don’t promote boycotts and divestment and sanctions against Israel, and you don’t promote conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the media and the Congress and the Senate and the economy and the White House and I don’t know what. With all these messages, can anyone in this room please tell me how can you move forward with any peace process? What Israel is facing right now are two Palestinian camps. The Palestinians are divided into two camps, both ideologically and physically. One camp is telling Israel you must give me 100 percent of what you took in 1948. I’m sorry to tell you, by the way, that this camp does not represent a minority among the Palestinians, this camp that basically wants to destroy Israel. The last time we had a free and democratic election, this camp won the election in 2006.
The second camp, I mean I don’t know, in the New York Times, they call them the moderate camp. I call them the less radical camp, which is a PLO camp. They’re telling Israel, “Israel, you must give me 100 percent of what you took in 1967, mainly the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and after that, you must allow me to bring 5 or 6 million Palestinians also into Israel and after you do all these things, Israel, I can’t guarantee you an end to the conflict. I can’t guarantee you an end to Palestinian demands. And you know what, Israel? I don’t even know if I’m going to stay in power because Hamas might kill me or ISIS might take over, but Israel give me and let’s see what happens.” This is where we are standing today and as I said, I keep warning people in that part of the world, my Israel Jewish friends, you need to be very careful because today, we are in a situation where Israeli concessions, Israeli gestures and Israeli unilateral moves are being misinterpreted in the Arab world as signs of weakness and that brings more violence. Israel is dammed if it does and Israel is dammed if it doesn’t, and that’s why – and I’m not saying this because Bibi Netanyahu told me to say it – I believe that there is no alternative now to the status quo. All that Israel can do is keep it on low flames, manage the conflict, continue to work with those Palestinians who want to work with you and shoot back anyone who shoots at you. That’s all that Israel can do.
Just one final point, if I may. Do I have time? Okay. I heard a lot of talk here about campuses in the U.S. and all that, and I’d like to tell you, I have been to some of these dangerous places, like Berkeley University, and Irvine and DePaul and I can tell you, I feel safer being with the PLO in Hamas than going back to some of these university campuses. I try to go there. I try to speak. I met a group of very hostile people trying to be more Arab than I am, people who have never been there to the Middle East, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They hide behind this banner of pro-Palestinian. I did not find anything pro-Palestinian about their messages. I found it to be much more anti-Israel and anti-Jewish than helping the Palestinians. We talked about the incitement and the indoctrination in the mosques in the Middle East. I saw things that are much more dangerous at many of these university campuses to a point where I decided that I’m not going to go back there and I’m serious, by the way, because I do not feel safe and I spend a lot of time in Ramallah, Hebron and Nablus. I go to Tulkarm. My family is from there. I mean we’re talking about a very small family of 3,000 people and I have never – and some of them are from the PLO and Hamas, by the way – but I’ve never felt threatened like I did at the university campuses, so we also need to pay attention to what is happening over there. And I think it’s very sad and very bad also that these people who came there, they did not come to engage in any kind of debate with me. They came there to prevent me from speaking, to kick me out, to tell me that I’m not welcome because I was accused of being pro-Israel and I don’t even understand why this is a crime.
Why is that a crime to be pro-Israel? First of all, I’m an Israeli citizen. I’m even proud of it. I have no problem with that and being pro-Israel does not necessarily mean that I condone everything Israel does, but it’s very sad and we need to pay attention to what is happening over there because what is happening at the campuses is also echoing in Ramallah and Gaza and further radicalizing Palestinians over there. This is not about making peace. This is not about criticizing Israel. This is about seeing Israel disappear and many of these people I met at the university campuses who call themselves pro-Palestinian, at the end of the day, many of them admitted that their problem was not with a checkpoint or a wall or a fence, but their problem was with the presence of Israel in that part of the world. That was their real problem, so we need to pay attention. The indoctrination, the incitement is also happening at these college campuses. I know many Palestinians, moderate Arabs and Muslims who are also like me, afraid to go back to university campuses from what they saw there, but this is an internal American issue and you will have to deal with it, so thank you very much and thank you.