The Trap of Palestinian Participation

An open letter considers the impossible choice facing Palestinians: Participate as a token in conversations premised on their oppression, or be branded rejectionists.

Tareq Baconi
February 10, 2023

Dear Ambassador David M. Satterfield,

I’ve been reflecting on your recent invitation to participate in the “Israel at 75” conference and accompanying “celebratory dinner” to be held at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in April, which I declined last month. I must confess that I was initially perplexed by the offer. I would have assumed that my public statements and writings on the State of Israel would have precluded me from consideration for an event of this kind. Then I thought that my position might be precisely the reason I was invited—that the offer constituted a genuine effort to engage with my analyses. But once I examined the invitation and proposed agenda more closely, I knew I had to reject it. The same reasons that informed my decision also compelled me to compose this open letter: to voice my concerns publicly and explain not only why I declined, but how this entire performance of perfunctory offers and obligatory refusals serves to further undermine Palestinian voices.

To begin with, to reach out to a Palestinian with an invitation suggesting that Israel at any age is something to “celebrate”—as the framing of the formal meal following the conference casually suggests—is at least naively inconsiderate if not egregiously insulting. Given your background and expertise as one of the most celebrated Middle East experts in the State Department, I would struggle to accept that this was an error born of ignorance. I can only assume that as far as the Baker Institute is concerned, the crimes against my family and my people over the past eight decades are not worthy of consideration—and certainly not offensive enough to dim the lights of this celebration.

But I will brush past this offense. As Palestinians, we learn early on that we must choose our battles. To protest every insult would mean being stuck in perpetual combat—never progressing, never living, hemorrhaging finite time and energy. We must instead learn to be thoughtful, savvy, and strategic as we engage in this asymmetric struggle for our liberation. So I will skip ahead to the part of the invitation where I am asked to offer a “Palestinian perspective” on a panel titled “Two States for Two People? Are there Still Viable solutions for Israel and Palestine?”—that is, to jump on that endless merry-go-round debate about the optimal way forward. I will make this simple, not because we should not engage in complex discussions, but because complexity is often a shroud to hide clear, irrefutable truths. Whether one state or two matters very little to me. There is and has only ever been one “viable solution” in what the organizers call “Israel and Palestine” but is in fact—here is a Palestinian perspective—a colonized Palestine: the dismantling of Israel’s regime of apartheid and its institutions of Jewish supremacy. All the architecture built to obfuscate this searing truth—the entire industry of make-believe around its supposed impossibility—still cannot diminish it.

Here is another Palestinian perspective: At 75, Israel is a powerhouse; a diplomatic, economic, and military success story; a global player and regional superpower. Like its sister settler colony, the United States, it is a force that cannot be ignored. But, to make a most morbid comparison, the US has been far more effective at marginalizing its Indigenous populations. Despite all of Israel’s successes, the country’s elite remain, much to their chagrin, stuck in a hysterical attempt to secure legitimacy, engaging in an interminable debate about how to manage those pesky people still clamoring for rights and justice. As one of those troublesome individuals, my perspective is that Israel should relinquish its stubborn insistence on supremacy and colonial domination, and allow equality, justice, and freedom to flourish between the river and the sea. To my mind, the only question worth considering is this: How can we make this happen?

Perhaps I am simple-minded. Colonized peoples famously lack the intellectual prowess of their colonizers. We must be guided into self-determination, if we are ever allowed it, and prove we are worthy of rights; after all, our backwardness justified our colonization in the first place. Policymakers often seem to take pleasure in entertaining my childish fantasies before lecturing me over and over about pragmatism and the limits of what is possible. They empathize with the Palestinian predicament, they assure me, but they are sadly constrained by what is feasible. The question of feasibility deflects from the question of desire: Is it infeasible to achieve a just postcolonial reality, or do the colonizers simply not want it?

All available evidence suggests that it is the latter. This should come as no surprise; those with power will never relinquish it without being forced, and as we approach its 75th anniversary, this powerful state is quite comfortable. Despite the cracks that are forming—the emerging consensus around classifying Israel as an apartheid state, the increasing popularity of anti-Zionism—Israel continues to dominate with impunity, murdering more than 200 Palestinians last year alone, including 50 children, with barely a peep from Western governments who have so movingly cried out against Russia’s occupation of Ukraine. So the question is: How can this Zionist power—so comfortable and still celebrated—be made to acknowledge its crimes and move away from its commitment to Jewish supremacy? How might it become feasible to address Israeli crimes and regard Palestinians as human beings worthy of dignity? Perhaps this could be the subject of a conference organized by the Baker Institute; I would be happy to attend it.

One might respond that airing these sorts of questions is exactly what this invitation aims to do: to bring the voice of someone like me into the conversation about how to move forward at this milestone year. But while the invitation claims to want a Palestinian perspective at this conference, the entire program demonstrates an insularity and parochialism that is completely unable to accommodate such a perspective. What might an invitation that was not premised on negating Palestinian history or politics look like? It would surely acknowledge that Israel’s 75th birthday is also the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, the catastrophic event where Zionist and Israeli forces expelled or forced the flight of more than 750,000 Palestinians, decimating the economic, political, and social fabric of Palestine. It might propose a panel that openly reckons with Israel’s apartheid policies and the implications they have on Palestinian lives. Measures such as these would have signaled a real willingness to engage Palestinian perspectives and to challenge those views more prevalent in the American mainstream.

Instead, this conference is set up to create an echo chamber of the worst kind, one that is sure to perpetuate a strictly Zionist ideology. After opening remarks by yourself and the Israeli President Isaac Herzog, the first panel, on the US–Israel relationship, consists of five current or previous American ambassadors to the State of Israel. While those ambassadors represent a spectrum of views, they’ve nonetheless all served an American diplomatic system that has maintained an unwavering commitment to Israel. The panel in which I was asked to participate reflects the same bias, featuring another ambassador and a former Israeli prime minister’s chief of staff—as well as an introduction by Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who heads an organization devoted to Israel advocacy. While it would certainly befit an embassy or a national body to commemorate the anniversary of a state’s independence in this fashion, it is hardly becoming of an academic institution or a policy think tank to limit the discussion almost entirely to insiders and boosters.

Where are the scholars or activists who are critical of Israel and America’s unbreakable alliance with it, who might discuss America’s role in perpetuating the status quo and facilitating the emergence of the most extreme right-wing government in Israeli history? Where are the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who comprise a fifth of its population and whose lives are fundamentally shaped by the state and its relations with the US? It is, of course, no coincidence that a setting like this would be dominated almost exclusively by white, Zionist men. By including an actual diversity of viewpoints, the Baker Institute might have nurtured a rigorous and substantive intellectual discussion, one worthy of an institute attached to one of the country’s leading universities.

To be clear, I am not rejecting discussion in itself; rather, I am rejecting the terms of debate. I would gladly engage with any ally or foe if offered a safe and productive setting—a setting that does not negate my fundamental rights or otherwise set me up to fail. Given the current framing and composition of the conference, it is clear to me that far from being a genuine invitation to have a critical debate, this offer is about puppetry and tokenization—and perhaps even more insidiously, an effort to further normalize a regime of occupation and colonization. Introducing a Palestinian perspective into this space is a meaningless gesture that ensures the perspective in question is doomed to be scapegoated, co-opted, or dismissed. I know this as surely as I know that actual engagement with Palestinians would bring this whole house of cards to ruin.

While I have no doubt about my decision, I do resent the role this invitation forces me to play. When Palestinians are invited into spaces like the one proposed here that cannot adequately hold their views, and are forced by that basic measure to decline, they are branded “rejectionists.” There is a long history to this designation, which implicates not only scholars like me declining to participate in conferences but also the movement for liberation in its entirety. It’s deployed whenever representatives reject so-called peace proposals such as those pushed forward by the very individuals included in this conference. I am sure you are familiar with Israeli diplomat Abba Eban’s remark, now regarded as a truism, that Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” This ubiquitous trope of the Palestinian rejectionist perpetuates the idea that when we rebuff offers that demean us—holding firm and refusing to relinquish our most fundamental rights—we are ignorant or hateful, rather than steadfast and dignified. American and Israeli diplomats seem persistently perplexed that Palestinians will not just succumb and accept the terms of engagement that are forced upon them. This is the choice set before us over and over: Either accept this horrifically subpar offer or be demonized as illogical, stubborn, insubordinate. This conference is just another expression of that same zero-sum game, 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.

Still, for as long as Zionism has existed, we have been incredibly adept at narrating our perspective and fighting against our erasure. (Did you know that out of more than 2,400 opinion pieces hosted by the venerable New York Times about Israel and the Palestinians from 1970 to 2019, fewer than 50 were written by Palestinians?) In the pages of international newspapers and from podiums at conferences like this one, we have repeated our perspective ad nauseum to the point that many have become desensitized to our words. When you read above that Israel killed more than 200 Palestinians last year, was this number as shocking as it should have been? Did you stop reading, and let the weight of that tragedy settle into your skin, the way it would have had it been 200 Americans who were killed? Or did you brush over it and move on to the next line, already formulating your argument as to why this letter is disrespectful, polemical, a petulant screed?

Despite innumerable efforts to silence us, we are finally being heard on our own terms. But the irony is that the Baker Institute will no doubt find a Palestinian participant to appear on its terms. We still live in a world where you can send an invitation like this one without a second thought and find someone willing to cater to you. That’s on Palestinians; it is the oppressed who have the staggering responsibility of educating the powerful while instilling hope amongst the marginalized that there might be an alternative future in which their humanity is not compromised. But for many, it is far easier to hop on the merry-go-round than to help take the system apart and build a new one.

In rejecting the premise of your invitation, I am hoping to create space for alternative platforms to emerge—spaces where Palestinians can be included as equals, where we are able to put forth the wholeness of our narrative, where acknowledging and embracing our history add to the richness of the discussions about where we go from here. This is the only way to dismantle the systems of colonialism and oppression that have been unfolding in Palestine for more than 75 years.

Tareq Baconi

Tareq Baconi serves as the president of the board of Al-Shabaka. He is the former senior analyst for Israel/Palestine and Economics of Conflict at the International Crisis Group, based in Ramallah, and the author of Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance.