After the 1973 Geneva Conference, Israeli diplomat Abba Eban infamously remarked that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” In the decades since, his quip has become familiar shorthand for an insidious trope: the Palestinian rejectionist. This trope understands any refusal by Palestinians to participate in a particular negotiation or to accept the terms of a given agreement with Israel as evidence of a fundamental unwillingness to engage. Defenders of the occupation constantly point to this absurd notion to justify the oppression of Palestinians, who are framed as unreasonable and intransigent.
In a searing open letter we published last Friday, Palestinian scholar Tareq Baconi deconstructs this trope, casting Palestinian refusal in a different light. Responding to an invitation to appear on a panel at an “Israel at 75” conference hosted by the Baker Institute for Public Policy, a storied think tank housed at Rice University, Baconi explains exactly why he declined the offer. By examining the language of the invitation and structure of the agenda—from the casual insult of inviting a Palestinian to a “celebratory dinner” honoring the state that marginalizes him to the “insiders and boosters” who populate the panels—he shows how the event, like innumerable similar discussions, undermines his fundamental rights. “While the invitation claims to want a Palestinian perspective at this conference,” he writes, “the entire program demonstrates an insularity and parochialism that is completely unable to accommodate such a perspective.”
Even as he carefully explains the reasoning behind his decision not to attend, Baconi understands that it will likely be dismissed as another instance of Palestinian rejectionism. “This conference is just another expression of that same zero-sum game,” he writes, “in which we can either participate as a token even though the odds are stacked entirely against us, or refuse to play the game—and have our refusal used to justify our continued subjugation.” For Baconi, it’s imperative for Palestinians to escape this trap by embracing refusal, leaving behind dead-end conversations that don’t serve them—and making space for new ones that take Palestinian humanity as a baseline.