Sometimes a simple sentence by a nation’s leader can do more to build trust than volumes of words and speeches.
Never would this be more true than in the cases of two of the most volatile issues in the Middle East — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iran nuclear challenge.
Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that sentence would read: We the Palestinians recognize and accept the Jewish state of Israel.
While some have criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for introducing this as a focal point of negotiations, he understands well that this demand gets to the core of the conflict and why it has not been resolved for so many decades.
In moving from seeking to destroy Israel in the early days, to employing other approaches such as flooding Israel with refugees or so-called salami tactics in negotiations, the constant has been that, psychologically, the Palestinians have not made the necessary leap toward accepting the permanence and legitimacy of a Jewish state in the land of Israel.
Making this statement to accept Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state would not solve all problems by any means, but it would change the basis of discussions and could open the possibility of true progress toward the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security.
The second sentence that could make a huge difference would be one by the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei: We acknowledge that we have been seeking over many years to enrich uranium in order to achieve a nuclear military capability.
One understands arguments against such a statement: it’s not realistic to get them to admit it. It may expose them to certain international laws.
But the level of trust that such an admission could have would change the dynamic of the negotiations and lead to a more honest determination to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
One hears repeatedly that any agreement with Iran cannot be based on trust. It must be verifiable. This, of course, is true.
But the truth is, the new tone of President Hassan Rouhani was intended to reassure the West and create trust about Iran’s intentions, and it played a role in the willingness of the United States to open dialogue with Iran for the first time in more than 30 years. The problem is that the very issue that the two nations are engaging on, the Iranian nuclear program, is based on a total lie: Iran’s claim that it never has intended to develop a nuclear military capacity.
We have to bring an end to this underlying falsehood in order to have a chance to reach a “good agreement” that will ensure Iran will not have the ability to build a bomb. As both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have said, as has Prime Minister Netanyahu: a bad agreement is worse than no agreement.
For those of us who worry that a bad agreement is still a possibility, an Iranian admission that it was enriching uranium toward a bomb would be a critical step forward. It would cut through the charade that Iran was only amassing enriched uranium for civilian purposes, so that negotiations could truly focus on what has to be done differently to show that Iran is giving up on its dream of becoming a nuclear military power.
Absent that, the discussion seems to be moving in parallel universes, with Iran insisting on keeping a civilian program, which was never its primary goal, and the P5-plus-one powers basing the talks on the notion that Iran was always trying to build a nuclear weapon.
So how about it, Palestinians and Iranians? A sentence each could change the dynamic of conflict and move us to a better and more peaceful word for all.
It may be pie in the sky to expect them to utter these magical words. At least those of us in America who want to see real, not bogus, change ought to insist on two sentences that could change the world.
Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League.