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Clinton should press the Arab side

by Saul Singer

There is nothing new about the "new American policy" announced by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently at the Saban Conference. This is unfortunate, because the current impasse is an opportunity for a fundamental rethink of the US strategy.

Let's start with what's broken. Clinton's speech was a classic example of the historic and failed US approach. Almost every sentence was crafted to convey absolute evenhandedness. Every ounce of praise or pressure on one side was carefully balanced by an equal weight on the other. To someone unfamiliar with the conflict, it would be impossible to detect which side the US favors. Such neutrality is both deliberate and axiomatic: it is a pillar of US Middle East diplomacy regardless of party, but even more so than usual under the current administration.

Another pillar of the current US approach is that it is overwhelmingly local. There were brief mentions of the Arab states and Iran, but by and large the Israeli-Palestinian problem is treated as just that: a problem between two parties that radiates outwards.

Both of these pillars represent fundamental misunderstandings of the conflict. The conflict is not symmetrical or local; it is asymmetrical and regional.

Declared US policy is built on the premise that both sides want peace and are equally held back by shortsighted leadership. International opinion and the private views of many diplomats are even less kind to Israel and see evenhandedness as a fig leaf for Israeli obstinacy.

The reality is that the conflict is asymmetrical, but in the other direction: Israelis, both people and polity, are much more ready for the two-state solution than is the Arab world. This can be seen by the long, tough road Israelis have taken over the past two decades, compared to where the Arab world is today.

Twenty years ago, the number of non-Arab Israeli parliamentarians who openly favored a Palestinian state could be counted on the fingers of one hand, if that. To be for the two-state solution then would isolate an Israeli politician on the far left of Israeli politics. Before the 1993 Oslo accords, it was illegal for an Israeli to speak to the PLO.

Today, almost the entire political spectrum is squeezed into what was once the far left corner. "Right-wing" Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stands leftward of former Labor premier Golda Meir. The handful of politicians who would dare openly oppose the two-state solution today are as isolated on the right as the pro-state camp on the left was just a short time ago.

What has happened in the meantime on the Palestinian side? True, open calls for Israel's destruction that were de rigueur before 1967 are now limited to the Hamas-Hizballah camp, as large as it is. But almost no Palestinian leader can openly admit the most basic tenets underlying a two-state solution: that there is a Jewish people; that Jewish temples stood under independent Jewish sovereignty for centuries; and that Jewish moral, legal, and historic rights to sovereignty are not inferior to those of Palestinians.

On the one hand, Palestinian leaders claim all they are asking for is 22 percent of Palestine between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. On the other, as lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat explained on Ynet.com, "agreeing to the Israeli demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would empty negotiations on the refugee problem of all content ... and completely negate the Palestinian narrative." In other words, the Palestinian position is what's mine is mine and what's yours is mine: you have no right to live in a Palestinian state, while Palestinians must have the right to "return" to the Jewish state.

It is bad enough that the Palestinians claim to support a two-state solution while accepting none of its basic premises. What is much worse is that no western leader will call them on it. But the asymmetry goes even deeper.

The reason that the Israeli political spectrum has lurched leftward over two decades is simple: the Zionist project has always had one or both feet in the two-state camp. When the United Nations voted to partition Palestine in 1947, the Jews danced in the streets. Two states meant the realization of a 2,000-year-old Zionist dream.

By the same token, if tomorrow a peace agreement were announced in the Arab world there would be much more mourning than dancing. For Arabs, the two-state solution represents the abandonment of a century-old dream: the eviction of the Jews from Palestine. It would be a defeat, not a victory. While a Jewish state of any size is a victory for Zionism, the Arab world has spent the last century convincing itself that a Jewish state of any size is a defeat for Arab honor and rights.

There are, therefore, two fundamental requirements for peace. First, the West must demand that the Arab world accept Jewish peoplehood and historic rights, just as vociferously as it has demanded that Israelis accept the same for Palestinians. Second, the West needs to recognize that the Arab world will not accede to this demand so long as the radical Islamist camp is on the brink of achieving strategic immunity by way of an Iranian nuclear umbrella.

As was revealed by Wikileaks, Arab leaders regard the Iranian threat as an existential one to their regimes. If Iran is going nuclear, why would they throw fire on the flames around them by ratifying Israel's existence?

On closer examination, one notices that Clinton's speech is quite specific on its demands of Israel ("we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity") while vague with respect to the Arab states ("they should take steps that show Israelis, Palestinians, and their own people that peace is possible and that there will be tangible benefits if it is achieved.") Why not clearly call on the Arab world to stop denying the existence of a Jewish people and admit basic historic facts, such as the Jewish temples that stood in Jerusalem?

Israelis have crossed the two-state Rubicon; Arabs pretend to have done so but are in reality far from it. They need to be pressed to take the first baby steps toward truly accepting Jewish rights in "their" land, and they need to be given the strategic space to do so by defusing the Iranian nuclear threat. The good news is that if these two achievable goals are met, the prospects for Arab-Israel peace will be substantial; the bad news is that absent these steps no amount of negotiations--proximity or direct--will bring us fundamentally closer to a lasting peace.-Published 20/12/2010 © bitterlemons.org

Saul Singer is co-author, with Dan Senor, of "Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle".

Notice Board

Bitterlemons will not be published again until January. We wish our Christian readers a Merry Christmas and all our readers a peaceful 2011.
Articles in this edition
What we'll learn from the next round of Wikileaks - by Yossi Alpher
US shift may mean end of bilateral approach - by Ghassan Khatib
Clinton should press the Arab side - by Saul Singer
The same song in a different key - by Akram Baker

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