When an Israeli minister denies Palestinians are a people, there is little hope for peace

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“Mr. Chairman,” read the letter signed by the prime minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin sent to Yasser Arafat. “In response to your letter of September 9, 1993, I wish to confirm to you that, in light of the PLO commitments included in your letter, the Government of Israel has decided to recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and commence negotiations with the PLO within the Middle East peace process.”

The exchange of letters of recognition, followed by an uneasy handshake on the White House lawn, ended years of attempts at mutual negation by Israelis and Palestinians. The Declaration of Principles that was signed that same day and witnessed by President Clinton has since failed, in part due to the assassination of Rabin by an Israeli extremist named Yigal Amir.

Now, nearly 30 years later, another Israeli extremist is negating what is stated about the Palestinian people while holding a top position in the Israeli government. However, this extremist is not only allowed to spew his hatred and incitement, but he is also able to execute policies as part of his special status in the government overseeing what happens in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who called for the Palestinian town of Hawara to be “erased,” has now said that Palestinians have no rights because “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.” He called Palestinians an invention. “Is there a Palestinian history or culture? There is none,” he said.

His speech was made in France on Sunday, while standing at a podium with a map in the colors of the Israeli flag showing Israel with expanded boundaries that include the occupied Palestinian territories, Jordan and parts of Lebanon and Syria.

Palestinians should not have to defend themselves and restate their history on their land. Nor should countries in the region have to defend their sovereign lands. There is a lot to be said for the silence of the Israeli government and other nations on Smotrich comments. France’s silence is particularly disturbing, since it is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

If Smotrich vile statement and the expansionist map are not representative of the current Netanyahu coalition government, then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs to remove Smotrich from his top position. But in fact, much of Smotrich sentiment does reflect the agenda of the government itself.

After all, the coalition agreement that allowed Netanyahu to win a thin majority in the Israeli Knesset states clearly that the Palestinian lands — the West Bank and home to nearly 3 million Palestinians — is part of the God-given land of Israel, and that Israel will annex those lands when the time is appropriate.

Denying the existence of the Palestinian people and even the hints of Israeli expansions in the region wipes out hope for promise of the two-state solution. While the world has recognized Israel since its inception in 1948, it has hinted at recognizing Palestine. Many European parliaments have called on their executive branches to recognize Palestine, but apart from Sweden, that has not happened.

Palestinians at the U.N. have asked that the Security Council recognize Palestine as a state under occupation, but Washington has balked at the idea. A Gallup poll this week shows that 49% of Democrats support Palestinians, while only 38% support Israel. Public views, in Israel and abroad, are shifting as the Netanyahu government embraces extreme right-wing views and policies.

The U.S., along with Jordan and Egypt, have been working hard in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh to de-escalate tensions before the start of the holy month of Ramadan this week, but Israeli leaders appear to be intent on adding fuel to the fire of conflict. What is needed now is not another useless attempt at de-escalation or even the lip service of a two-state solution. What is needed is a political horizon.

Without hope, it is hard to convince ordinary Palestinians that there will be peace. The Israeli occupation, along with the unruly and illegal Jewish settlers, must not be allowed to continue oppressing Palestinians. Unless there is hope, there will not be any prospects for long-term stability or peace. Allowing Smotrich to deny the existence of the Palestinian people is to give license to further violence. The only way forward is to begin a real political process now.

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