Imagine the dilemma for the Haaretz conference organizers.They’re a newspaper, not a government office. They had no plans to put an Israeli flag on the stage for their day-long event in New York on Sunday.
But then President Reuven Rivlin, whose presence on the program constitutes such important legitimization of everything they are doing, insists that the national flag must be on stage when he is addressing participants. They could hardly refuse him. So be it.
Except that top PLO official Saeb Erekat, whose presence is also essential at a conference focused on debate over the Palestinian conflict, then tells them that he won’t speak with an Israel flag up on stage. And so the national symbol is hurriedly removed.
Did the Haaretz planners know about these conflicting demands well ahead of time? Was their decision to acquiesce to both painstakingly weighed? Or were they making decisions on the fly? I don’t know.
We do know that the Israeli flag was not, in fact, only placed on stage for Rivlin. It was there for other speakers, including former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, the New Israel Fund’s Daniel Sokatch and Talia Sasson, and Haaretz’s in-house speakers, as is clear in Haaretz’s own videos of the event. And it does not appear for speeches by Israeli Arab MK and party leader Ayman Odeh or US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.
Does any of this matter? I think it does.
I can understand Haaretz’s disinclination to get into the national symbols business. But like it or not, by inviting the speakers it invited to its event, with the demands that those speakers brought with them, it did get dragged in.
And once you’re dragged into the national symbols business, you can’t so easily shrug it off.
So, I’m wondering, was it suggested to Erekat that maybe he’d agree to speak in front of two flags — Israeli and Palestinian? There are, of course, precedents for that, over the years, at peace deal ceremonies and all manner of other meetings. One striking example was on July 31, 2013, when members of MK Hilik Bar’s Knesset Caucus to Resolve the Arab-Israeli Conflict hosted Palestinian Authority politicians in the Israeli parliament. Their meeting, attended by 33 MKs from parties representing 77 of the 120 MKs, was held in a room in which Israelis and Palestinian flags were carefully displayed — a much-ballyhooed Knesset precedent.
Had Haaretz suggested it, and had Erekat agreed, what an encouraging symbol of potential coexistence that would have constituted. What a graphic representation of the conviction that Haaretz itself would surely wish to champion: that coexistence is both necessary and viable. What a tangible display of Erekat’s asserted desire for a two-state solution. What an affirmation of President Rivlin’s courageous insistence on addressing the event, in the cause of free speech and open debate, despite criticism that he was participating in a forum where the IDF-bashing Breaking the Silence NGO was also being given a platform? And what a graphic vindication of Haaretz’s Zionist outlook — its insistence that its hyper-criticism of the occupation, the settlement enterprise, and many of the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stems from the purest patriotism, born of the most passionate pro-Israel conviction and carried by the deepest concern that our leadership and its misguided stance on the Palestinian question are bringing this country ever closer to destruction.
A different Palestinian leader might have seen fit not to demand, ‘Remove your flag’ but rather to suggest, ‘Add mine. Isn’t that what we’re all about here today?’
Did anyone think to suggest the idea? Did Erekat refuse it? Or maybe the organizers worried that they’d then have to put up the Palestinian flag when Rivlin was speaking, and that he would have dismissed the idea. Or maybe he wouldn’t… Again, I don’t know.
But the incident, and the headlines, and the predictable hysteria on the right, and defensiveness on the left, and the other differently nuanced reactions from elsewhere on the spectrum, only underline how powerful and resonant the symbols of nationhood really are. And the Haaretz Flag Dispute — at a conference declaredly dedicated to asking questions and seeking ways forward — symbolically re-emphasized the gulf between Israel and the Palestinians.
A different Palestinian leader, a guest at a conference organized by an Israeli newspaper that seeks to persuade its readership of the imperative to advance toward coexistence with the Palestinians, might have seen fit not to demand, “Remove your flag” but rather to suggest, “Add mine. Isn’t that what we’re all about here today?”
Apparently, Erekat didn’t. Just like his leader, Mahmoud Abbas, hosting a reciprocal visit by Knesset members in Ramallah in October 2013, three months after his representatives had been be-flagged at the Knesset, made sure there was no Israeli flag to be seen in the meeting hall, which was dominated by large Palestinian flags. Bar and his party leader Isaac Herzog did not issue demands for the hurried addition of an Israeli flag or removal of the Palestinian flags. They shrugged off the symbolic insult.
The defenders of Abbas, and of Erekat, would doubtless argue that, come the day when Israel recognizes a Palestinian state, protocol will require the mutual display of national symbols and they will doubtless be only too happy to meet their obligations. The critics would argue that the very Palestinian resistance to displaying the Israeli flag illustrates a fundamental Palestinian refusal to accept the Jewish state’s legitimacy and thus to agree to the compromises necessary for an abiding, viable two-state deal.
Plainly, obviously, national symbols resonate on both sides of our bloody, fraught, deadlocked divide — the very divide that the Haaretz event was convened to help bridge. And the symbolic asymmetry — the unreciprocated readiness of one side to display the other’s national flag; the unreciprocated readiness of one side to appear in a forum alongside the other’s national flag? Well, that resonates too.