Interview: Khaled Abu Toameh
Khaled Abu Toameh, 50, an award-winning Israeli journalist and documentary filmmaker, has reported on Arab affairs for three decades. He writes for The Jerusalem Post and the New York-based Gatestone Institute, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit international policy council and think tank, where he is a senior adviser. Since 1989, he also has been a producer and consultant for NBC News. He grew up in the Arab Israeli town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye near Haifa and studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He now lives in Jerusalem.
Q. What are the challenges of working as a journalist in the West Bank and Gaza?
A. Before the Oslo peace process began, Arab journalists had almost no problem traveling throughout the West Bank and Gaza, speaking freely with Palestinians. But ever since the Palestinian Authority came to the West Bank and Gaza, the situation has become much more challenging and dangerous. The P.A. expects you to serve as an official spokesperson and avoid criticism of its leaders.
With Hamas in power in Gaza, it’s become even more dangerous for independent Arab journalists. Because of the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement against Israel, journalists representing the Israeli media, like myself, face not only difficulties but threats and even physical violence when we go to Ramallah. The P.A. leadership in the West Bank promotes BDS against Israel and also fights normalization with Israel. It bans meetings between Palestinians and Israelis and condemns the Israeli media as extremely hostile, which makes it impossible to work there and endangers our lives.
Q. How does the Arab street respond to your reporting?
A. No one tells me that what I am reporting is inaccurate or untrue. I am often criticized, however, for reporting the facts. I am only reporting what many Arab journalists want to report. If I resided in Ramallah, I would not be reporting many things. There are P.A. journalists who post critical things on Facebook and risk prison. Those who ask the wrong questions at press conferences are sometimes detained or even tortured.
I live inside Israel, so my reality is sharply different. I receive more threats from pro-Palestine students and academics in the U.S. than I do from local Palestinians.
Q. What happened to the moderate Palestinian center?
A. Palestinians have been so radicalized that you will find very few Palestinians who will openly talk about making any significant compromise with Israel. No P.A. leader would dare to sign any agreement with Israel for fear of being condemned as a traitor. Israel has been delegitimized in the eyes of most Palestinians and this is the result of decades of indoctrination and incitement against Israel. This is true throughout the entire Arab world.
Ironically, this incitement intensified after the peace process began. The Palestine Liberation Organization leadership used the media, the mosques and every available podium to delegitimize and discredit Israel in the eyes of the Palestinians. By doing so, the P.L.O. has actually shot itself in the foot. P.A. leaders know that they have radicalized their people to the point where there are people who don’t want to hear about peace with Israel at all. I believe this is why [Mahmoud] Abbas will not sign any agreement with Israel. He simply doesn’t want to go down in history as a traitor.
Q. Is there anything Israel should be doing differently?
A. Israel is facing two camps in the Palestinian community. One is the radical camp that doesn’t believe in Israel’s right to exist and seeks its destruction. With that camp, there’s nothing that can be done. The second, less radical, camp is represented by some P.L.O. leaders in the West Bank who are unable to deliver [change or peace]. This is a camp that lacks grass-roots support. It has further been discredited due to its close relations with the U.S., Europeans and even Israel. So Israel is facing one camp that doesn’t want to deliver and another that cannot practically do so.
Q. United States Secretary of State John Kerry has tried to revive the peace process with multiple visits and public declarations. Can this break the logjam?
A. It’s a waste of time. You might be able to reach some sort of interim agreements with Abbas over certain areas that he’s actually in control of in the West Bank, but I doubt he’ll go even for that. Many in the international community see Abbas as a peace partner and this might be partially true, but so what? The question we need to ask is ‘Can this man deliver?’ What’s a peace agreement worth with Abbas when he can’t even visit his house in Ramallah that has been taken over by Hamas? The international community should go to the Palestinians and ask them to get their act together and start speaking in one voice and stop the indoctrination and glorification of suicide bombers. They must start preparing their people for possible compromise with Israel.
Q. What are Israel’s Arab citizens saying about Israel?
A. Arab citizens of Israel can act as a bridge between Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli Arab dilemma is that their State of Israel is in conflict with their people, the Palestinians. While most Israeli Arabs would like to see a Palestinian state and a better life for the Palestinians, they would nevertheless prefer to stay inside Israel for two reasons: First, this has always been their home. Second, they have always been comfortable in Israel despite all the challenges facing them.
I am worried about the process of radicalization that is taking place among the Arab community inside Israel. I blame some of the domestic Arab community leaders for inciting their fellow citizens against Israel. I’m talking about some of the Arab Knesset members. And the Israeli establishment’s failure to address very serious problems within Arab society is no less problematic: unemployment, unequal allocation of public funds and investment in physical infrastructure.
Q. Does the composition of Israel’s government or the country’s political landscape matter to the Palestinians?
A. Most Arab Israelis don’t see a difference between Labor and Likud. Sometimes, ironically, right-wing governments do more than the left wing. In this regard, I’ve never understood the P.A. leadership. When there’s a left-wing government in Israel, they reject it, and because of that Israeli left-wing governments fall. And when the right-wing government comes to power, they complain that they can’t make peace with them.
Q. Why is there such a pronounced Palestinian denial of Jewish history—from the Holocaust to the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount and Western Wall?
A. It’s part of the campaign to delegitimize Israel: [The message is that] the Jews have no historical attachment to this land. We are told…even by moderates that there is no such thing as the Western Wall; it is the southern wall of the Al Aqsa mosque. We are told that there is no such thing as Rachel’s Tomb. We are told that there’s no such thing as Joseph’s Tomb; it’s just the tomb of a Muslim sheik. And all the archaeological discoveries are fake. That Jews come at night and plant items at excavation sites and in the morning call a press conference to present these items as something that demonstrates a connection.
There are different views about the Holocaust. There are those who might admit it happened but challenge the numbers; there are those who completely deny it. Finally, there are some who recognize it happened on the full scale. But the first categories are prevalent and they contend that Israel is using the Holocaust to extort money. The common sentiment says: Why should we talk about Jewish suffering? We have enough suffering of our own.
Q. What should Israel’s approach to peace be at this time?
A. Israel’s policy should be to talk to anyone who wants to talk and shoot back at anyone who shoots. I don’t see anything that Israel can do under the current circumstances. Some would say, ‘Why doesn’t Israel just get up and leave, unilaterally go to pre-1967 lines?’ I think that would be a recipe for another war. Any land you give to the P.L.O. will undoubtedly end up in the hands of Hamas and other extremists. We’ve been to this movie before and I’m not even sure the P.L.O. wants Israel to pull out of the West Bank, although they demand that in public. The P.L.O. knows that its survival in the West Bank depends on Israel’s security presence.