The Anti-Normalization Discourse in the Context of Israeli-Palestinian Peace-Building

This article was written as part of a project supported by IKV-Interchurch Peace Council, Netherlands.

In the Palestinian context, "normalization" (tatbi'a in Arabic) has been defined as "the process of building open and reciprocal relations with Israel in all fields, including the political economic, social, cultural, educational, legal, and security fields." (1) Not all Palestinians have the same stance toward normalization, however, and differ even in their willingness to use the word. Some say the word tatbi'a must not be used because it refers to conducting normal relations with Israel, which is currently impossible.
The process of normalization is considered to be positive from the point of view of the "normalizers," because, in their view, it represents the beginning of a process to transform the relationship with Israel from an abnormal one to a normal one that will allow Israel to be integrated into the Arab region instead of continuing to look westward and seeking to be part of Europe. Its opponents argue that normalization is a process that Arabs can have with countries that have not attacked and occupied Arab lands. Israel, however, was built at the expense of the Palestinian people, most of whom were evacuated from their homeland in 1948 by Jewish military groups. Therefore, the opponents ask how can it be possible to normalize relations with Israel when it has built its existence at the expense of others, who live either as refugees scattered around the world, or under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and as unequal citizens within Israel?
For the purpose of this paper, anti-normalization positions will be defined as those that do not accept the Other, either as an individual, a group, or a nation. The search for anti-normalization positions have been conducted in both societies, and conclusions regarding what can be done include suggestions for the two peoples across the divide.
This paper shows how the anti-normalization discourse sometimes overlaps with, and sometimes contradicts the peace-building process, especially since an anti-normalization stance does not always mean a rejection of all relations. On the contrary, an anti-normalization position might reject normalcy now, but accept it after the achievement of peace, or it might reject normalcy but accept negotiations (on the official level), or dialogue (on the popular level). The main aim of this paper is to unravel some of this complexity, and to develop some recommendations for the peace movements regarding how to deal with the anti-normalization discourse.

Arab Anti-Normalization Positions

The anti-normalization positions in the Arab world fall into four main categories: Islam, Arab Marxism, Arab nationalism, and a mix of different ideological groups who all agree on the importance of resisting so-called "cultural normalization."

a. The root of the Islamic anti-normalization position comes from the belief that Palestine is an Islamic waqf (endowment), and that Jews have no rights at all in it. Consequently, Israel's existence is not legitimate, and therefore it is not possible to recognize it.(2) The stance of Palestinian Islamists is more moderate than this. Since the beginning of 1994, the position of Hamas has been to accept coexistence with Israel without recognition, and without normalizing relations.(3)
b. The Marxist position on normalization is inherited from their anti-imperialist stance; therefore, they speak against normalizing with Israel as a part of their anti-normalization towards imperialism. This Marxist anti-normalization propaganda was strong in the Arab world during the 1970s and 1980s, and they put it into practice through anti-normalization committees such as the Committee for the Defense of the Arab National Culture in Egypt. With the collapse of most of the Arab Marxist groups, the Marxist anti-normalization trend has continued among groups of intellectuals who refuse normalization within the broader framework of the rejection of both social and cultural consumerism.
c. The third anti-normalization position is that of the Arab nationalists, whose position towards Israel has passed through two stages. In the first stage, which lasted until the 1970s, the Arab nationalists considered Israel (which they called "the Zionist entity") to be a threat to Arab national unity, because geographically it has separated the Arab east from the Arab west, and has also taken part of Arab land. In the 1970s the Arab nationalists split into two different groups with respect to their stance regarding normalization. The official Arab position was expressed in a readiness to participate in negotiations with Israel through an international peace conference in Geneva as early as 1973. A second position, held by Arab nationalist intellectuals, rejected negotiations with Israel - even if they did not lead to the recognition of and the establishment of a normal relationship with Israel. It should be noted here that even those Arab nationalists who have taken part in official negotiations with Israel, such as the Syrian regime, make a distinction between negotiating with Israel and normalizing with Israel.
d. The last category consists of a mixture of groups all of which call for the rejection of cultural normalization. Those working against cultural normalization include various religious, national, and Marxist orientations, some of whom believe that fighting against political and economic normalization is not likely to succeed. Therefore, they consider it is better to concentrate on preserving the last and most important "garrison": Arabic culture.

Palestinian Anti-Normalization Positions

Relatively different from the Islamists in the Arab world, the Palestinian Hamas is willing to accept the existence of Israel following a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Arab East Jerusalem. The Islamic Jihad has also held this position since the beginning of 2004. Furthermore, Hamas does not completely oppose any dialogue with the Israelis. In fact, some Hamas members (who later split from the group), along with people who are close to Hamas (from the Muslim Brotherhood), have participated in religious dialogues with Israelis. These include Sheikh Jamil Hamami from the West Bank and Sheikh Imad Falouji from the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian radical Marxists, mainly the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), are only willing to consider normalization with the Jewish anti-Zionist groups inside Israel. During the 1970s, the PFLP built relations with the Israeli Trotskyist organization Matzpen, and later on developed minimal ties with the Israeli Communist Party. Other Palestinian Marxists (The Palestinian Communist Party, The Palestinian Democratic Union [FIDA], and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine [DFLP]) were more flexible than the PFLP, and accepted normalization not only with the Israeli Communist Party, but also with Israeli peace groups who believed in a two-state solution and who supported the Palestinian people's right to self-determination.
The Arab nationalists in Palestine, who represent a minority of Ba'athists, the PFLP General Command, and individual Arab nationalists, have rejected all kinds of normalization with Israel including its political, social, economic, and cultural forms. In 1994 this group formulated the so-called "Committee Against Normalization" in cooperation with some members of the PFLP. This committee tried to confront all aspects of normalization; however, its contradictory agendas led to its collapse less than six months after its formation.(4)
The four Arab trends have had an impact on Palestine; however, there is an important fifth position, that of the Palestinian nationalists, that plays a unique role. Although the Palestinian nationalists - led by the main PLO faction of Fateh - are not necessarily against Arab nationalism, they maintain that the liberation of Palestine is primarily a Palestinian responsibility, and that Arab countries should support the Palestinians in their struggle by providing geographical and humanitarian depth. Fateh worked to promote Palestinian interests, which sometimes coincided - and sometimes conflicted - with the interests of the Arab countries. Working for the Palestinian interest led Fateh to work with Israeli groups whenever it felt this would further their goals. Therefore, as a pragmatic movement, Fateh embarked on a normalization process with Israel (both on the official and popular levels), mainly through its upper- and middle-rank leaders in the early 1970s, via meetings with the Israeli Communist Party. It progressed in the 1980s through "contacts" and meetings with the Israeli peace movement, and then peaked with the negotiations and the signing of the Oslo Declaration of Principles.(5) Also Fateh members have participated in joint projects with Israeli organizations close to Labor and even Likud until the beginning of the 2000 intifada when Fateh followers began to feel that if Palestinians continued to meet with the Israeli movements, this might be viewed as though the situation was satisfactory and peace agreements need not be rushed. It is worth noting that even this new position does not call for severing relations with the Israeli solidarity groups that honestly and sincerely join the Palestinians in what together they view as a shared struggle for justice and human rights.*

The Contradictions in the Anti-normalization Positions

Several other questions and contradictions have been raised regarding the Palestinian and Arab positions vis-à-vis normalization:
* Is it correct to say that a peaceful settlement will succeed on all Arab fronts, and in all stages, and the task is to confront it? Or is the task to show its failures, and also to prevent its implementation on all fronts?
* Is it possible to work against all aspects of normalization? Or should the focus be against cultural normalization since the struggle against political and economic normalization cannot succeed?
* Is it possible to separate between negotiations, a peace settlement, and normalization? Or do the meanings of these terms overlap?
* Is it possible to include the supporters of the Madrid process, and the Syrian-Israeli negotiations in the anti-normalization groups?
* Is it possible to work with Israeli anti-Zionists - along with Israeli peace groups -against normalization with Israel on the official level? (6)

The Israeli Positions on Normalization

When discussing normalization, Israel is often represented as the side looking for peace and open relations with all the Arab countries, while anti-normalization is portrayed as a purely Arab position. This is simply untrue, as there is also deep opposition to normalization on the Israeli side. Outside of the current Israeli official positions, which are primary reasons for the failure in achieving peace with the Palestinians as well as with the Syrians, there are several Israeli anti-normalization positions that should be analyzed in greater depth.
The first position is related to the question of whether Israel considers itself part of the Middle East or part of the Western world. If Israel continues to see itself as part of the Western world, it will fail to build normal relations with the Arabs of the Middle East. Ironically, this stance mirrors the position of Arabs who refuse to integrate Israel into the region.
A second contradiction in Israel's position regarding normalization is that its government seeks normalization with the Arabs more as a means for joining the United States in its domination of the area than as a tool for integrating into the region. It is clear that this form of "normalization" will not lead to Arab equality with Israel; rather, it would simply deepen the strategic relations between Israel and the U.S., and lead to the fruition of plans, like those of Shimon Peres, that combine cheap Arab labor with Israeli technology in order "to develop the Middle East into a paradise." (7) However, Arab states have not only failed to integrate Israel into the area, they have also failed to develop a formula for partnership (including economic partnership) with Israel, as an alternative to Israeli-U.S. dominance.
A third contradiction noted by some Arab anti-normalization groups is that Israel wants the Arab countries to establish relations with it that are stronger than among Arab states themselves. Several writers have commented that the normal relations Arabs have with most countries do not lead those countries to, for example, ask for changes in Arab education curricula or to interference in media policy. Therefore, these authors have concluded that Israel is looking for extra-normal relations with the Arab countries. (8) Another case in point is the Israeli demands to be invited to Arab summit meetings.* Of course it is the responsibility of Arabs to stop incitement against the Jews in schools and media, just as it is Israel's responsibility to reciprocate and end incitement against the Arabs in its media and school curricula.
The fourth contradiction consists of Israel asking the Arabs to do things that Israel itself will not commit to. The primary example here is the issue of disarmament, including nuclear weapons. For instance, Israel wants a Palestinian state free of heavy weaponry while the State of Israel would maintain the right to possess all kinds of weapons. Israel calls for an Arab world free of weapons of mass destruction, although Israel itself is not prepared to get rid of such weapons. These kinds of contradictions only serve to make it very difficult for the Arabs to deal normally with Israel.
In addition to these general contradictions, other specific ones arise from the positions of the Israeli settlers and right-wing political groups. The settlers consider the Palestinians to be foreigners living in the Land of Israel. As one of settler leader told his Dutch visitors in July 2003: "They [the Palestinians] are foreigners, residents in Israel but not citizens, therefore they do not have the rights of citizens and they must choose either to live as Israel wants and under Israeli rules, or to leave the country." (9) Israeli right-wing parties range from those that call for the transfer of the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and inside Israel to Arab countries (Moledet Party), to those who recognize the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as residents but not as citizens of this land (Likud and other right-wing organizations).
Recognition of the Palestinian people remains a big problem even for those working for Israeli-Palestinian normalization. The post-Oslo Israeli governments, for example, still consider the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza as "residents in disputed areas" (previously they were considered Jordanian citizens in the West Bank, and persons with undetermined citizenship in Gaza). For East Jerusalemites, the situation is even worse: Palestinians are still considered by Israel to be "Jordanian citizens residing in Israeli land." If one does not recognize the citizenship of the other, how can one normalize relations with that other? When one introduces the issue of the Palestinian refugees, the issue gets even worse, as Israel continues to officially deny its responsibility in the matter, let alone recognize their right to return.

Conclusion: What Can Be Done?

Although the Israeli-Palestinian situation is not normal - and might not become normal because of the occupation and expansion of Israeli settlements- the analysis presented above would suggest that in the Palestinian-Israeli context, Palestinian readiness to normalize with Israel is higher than Israeli readiness to normalize with the Palestinians.
Among the Palestinians, people are divided on the issue of normalization, between those currently normalizing with Israel, and those who want to postpone normalization until after the establishment of the Palestinian state. There is, relatively speaking, no problem for Palestinians to accept the Other who shares the same land. Even the minority of Palestinians who do not want normalization with Israel even after the establishment of a Palestinian state, accept the principle of peaceful coexistence with Israel once a long-term non-belligerent situation is achieved.
The situation is the reverse on the Israeli side. This ranges from the government that claims there is no Palestinian partner for peace, to the right-wing politicians who do not consider the Palestinians to be people, to all the policies on the right or the left according to which Israelis consider and deal with the Palestinians as unequal partners, or pretend to cooperate with them while at the same time seek to dominate them.
Among the Israelis, there are four positions towards normalization, all of which are problematic in terms of building healthy and normal relations with the Palestinians. The first is the position of anti-normalization with the Palestinians represented not only by the government but also by right-wing political groups and a majority of Israelis looking to get rid of the Palestinians. The second, in contrast, looks for extra-normalization with the Arabs and the Palestinians. This position is related to the third: normalization with the Arabs and the Palestinians from a hegemonic and patronizing position, where the Israeli side will have more power and hence greater dominance. These two positions are complimentary, because it seems that extra-normalization is needed in order to achieve hegemony and dominance. These two positions represent the views of the Israeli Labor Party, and even other Israeli peace movements who manage their relations and negotiations with Palestinians in such a way as to promote their own goals. The fourth Israeli position involves normalizing the abnormal. This is evident in the focus of the Israeli peace camp on their relations with the Palestinians while simultaneously failing to change Israeli public opinion, which creates an illusion of normalization between the two peoples that, in fact, does not exist.
Taking into consideration this asymmetric situation, the question becomes how to convince some Palestinian academics and civil society organizations to deal with the Israeli Zionist peace camp now, even when they cannot see any signs that this will lead to the recognition of the Palestinian people's rights to self-determination. This is especially challenging since many of these individuals and groups already have their own relations with Israeli anti-Zionist and post-Zionist academics and civil society organizations. These groups can and must continue normalizing with the groups they choose. For the sake of pluralism and diversity, it is important that each side respect the other's approach to normalization, as well as the differences between the two sides. This is the essence of pluralism and respect for diversity.
What is needed now is a formula that enables all the normalization/anti-normalization processes to peacefully coexist, without the use of violence against each other and without accusing the others of treason, collaboration, or extremism. At the same time, both societies across the divide need to develop a formula for all these groups to come together to work on shared themes, such as combating the separation wall on Palestinian land and, most importantly, struggling against occupation as the main evil which gives rise to other evils such as terrorism.
In order to build joint actions, there must be respect for one another's positions. As a result, individuals should not express personal outrages against the positions with which they disagree, but rather make an effort to understand the deeper roots of these positions and to respect them. It is important to exchange views and to learn the positions of others, who may provide new and different ways of thinking about normalization. Moreover, since the majority of Palestinians accept normalization with Israel if the occupation ends, it should be emphasized that if the Israeli peace camp strengthens its work against the occupation within Israeli society, it will build trust among Palestinians, which could lead to a willingness to normalize. Another way to change Palestinians' positions is for the Israeli peace camp to show solidarity with them in their suffering from the occupation. This, for instance, is the reason why these Palestinians, although against normalization now, accept and build normal relations with the Israeli Ta'ayush group and other Israeli groups.
Those Israelis and Palestinians in the peace camp, who are acting together now without waiting for permanent-status issues to be resolved, need the above- mentioned tactics and methods in order to confront the opponents of normalization. They also need to persevere in their efforts aimed at ending the occupation.


1. The author wishes to express his gratitude to all the friends who provided him with helpful comments, including the Barcelona group, Wim Bartels, Benjamin Pogrund and Paul Scham, with a special thank-you to Mary Schweitzer and Maia Carter Halloward (Israel) for the voluntary initial editing of the text.


(1) Walid Salem, "Ishkaliat muwajahat attatbie'a," Kan'an Magazine, Volume 56, September 1994, pp. 15-20.
In other hand a Palestinian anti-normalization academic defined normalization to be the process of building an "ordinary (or ostensibly ordinary) relationship between two sides that have different powers, in a way that the weaker will be acting on the service of the stronger." The writer differentiates between "natural" and "ordinary," stating that the "unnatural" might become ordinary, but it will never become "natural." The author also turns to the cultural heritage of Great Syria, to show that normalization is a form of domestication, meaning that "the newly emerging behavior will become acceptable by the lord, or the side in power" (Abdel-Sattar Qasim, Tatbi'a al-akadimiyyeen, 2 pages, no date).
(2) For this position, see for instance Ghassan Hamdan, Attatbi'a:Istratigiet al-ikhtiraq as-sahiouni (al-Aman Publishing House, Beirut, 1989) (Arabic).
(3) See: Abdel Nasser Asha'er, Amaliet as-salam- al-Falastiniyyah-al-Israeliayyah. (Center of Palestine Research Studies, Nablus, March 1999) (Arabic).
(4) For information on this committee, see Walid Salem, "Ishkaliat muwajahat attatbi'a," Kana'an Magazine,Volume 56. September 1994, pp. 15-20 (Arabic).
(5) Details of Fatah position on contacts with the Israelis can be found in: Abu- Mazen, lematha hathehe al-it -tessallat (Arabic).
(6) Walid Salem, op. cit.
(7) Shimon Peres, The New Middle East (New York: Holt, 1993).
(8) See, for instance, al-Muwajahah (Arabic), the magazine of the Committee to Defend the Arab National Culture, Volume11, Cairo, June 1983; and a book published by the same committee: Thaqafat al-muqawamah, wamuwajahat assahioni'eh (Cairo, 1990).
* Thanks to Ilan Halevi for this comment.
(9) The head of Alon Shavot Settlement Council, interview July 16, 2003.
Thanks to Menahem Klein and Riad Malki for this comment.