The announcement of President Obama’s forthcoming visit to Israel and the Palestine Authority in March presents an opportunity to review the status of the Peace Process between Israel and the P.A. Right now the peace process is in a state of repose. Both sides say they seek renewal of negotiations, but only Israel has offered to negotiate face to face on all issues without preconditions.
On September 21, 2011 President Obama addressed the General Assembly of the U.N. Regarding the Peace Process he said:
“Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and Palestinians – not us – who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and on security, on refugees and Jerusalem. Ultimately, peace depends upon compromise among people who must live together long after our speeches are over, long after our votes have been tallied.”
His text suggests a possible change in United States policy where the U.S. will no longer seek to press solutions upon the parties but will respect decisions reached in direct negotiations between them. It of course remains to be seen whether that is what the President really meant and, if so, how such a policy might be implemented. Until recently, the U.S. assumed an active role in urging each side to make specific concessions. The concessions urged upon Israel by the United States involved relief for Palestinian Arabs from the burdens of “occupation”, ceding land for peace, evacuation of settlements, sharing Jerusalem, and restricting construction in settlements, among others. Concessions sought from the Palestinians required recognition and acceptance of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, limitations on a right of return to places occupied before 1948, and a commitment to end the conflict and to establish a lasting peace, among others. During the activist years many U.S. diplomats sought to bring the parties together through implied threats and inducements, mostly bearing little, if any, fruit. Each side perceived the United States as showing unwarranted favoritism towards the other. With the passage of time, however, as a practical matter conditions on the ground improved. As Palestinian terrorism abated, cooperation between the security forces of Israel and the P.A. grew.
In his address to the U.N. General Assembly in New York a year later, on September 25, 2012, the President reiterated the message given in 2011 when he said “Among Israelis and Palestinians, the future must not belong to those who turn their backs on a prospect of peace. Let us leave behind those who thrive on conflict, those who reject the right of Israel to exist. The road is hard, but the destination is clear – a secure, Jewish state of Israel and an independent, prosperous Palestine. Understanding that such a peace must come through a just agreement between the parties. America will walk alongside all who are prepared to make that journey.”
Since both addresses at the United Nations, not much has changed. The Palestinians still refuse to sit down with the Prime Minister of Israel, claiming he is not sincere in wanting peace and the Israelis are increasingly resigned to the belief that there is no partner for peace. The President’s plea for unconditional face to face negotiations has not induced Mahmoud Abbas to agree to sit down with Prime Minister Netanyahu.
The President’s message was noted in the remarks of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Saban Center Forum in Washington, DC on November 30, 2012. She said “…we have to convince Palestinians that direct negotiations with Israel represent not just the best but the only path to the independent state they deserve. America supports the goal of a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security with Israel. But this week’s vote at the UN [granting the Palestine Authority non-member state status] won’t bring Palestinians any closer to that goal. It may bring new challenges to the United Nations system and for Israel… At a time when religious extremists claim to offer rewards in the hereafter, Israel needs to help those committed to peace deliver for their people in the here and now… We all need to work together to find a path forward in negotiations that can finally deliver on a two-state solution. That must remain our goal. And if and when the parties are ready to enter into direct negotiations to solve the conflict, President Obama will be a full partner…
The refusal of President Abbas to return to negotiations undoubtedly reflects the fact that the Palestine Authority is not really a free actor in that regard. His leadership is disputed by Hamas which refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist, and challenges President Abbas’ legitimacy. Apart from financial assistance from the United States and the European Union, the P.A. is totally dependent on funding from unreliable donors and the political influence of the Arab League. Most Arab League nations (except for Egypt and Jordan) and other Islamic states remain committed to the Khartoum Declaration, September 1, 1967 by 8 Arab states: “No peace with Israel, No Recognition of Israel, No Negotiations with Israel”.
While some states in the Arab League have (mostly covertly) established limited trade and commercial activities with Israel, the Khartoum Declaration remains a powerful propaganda weapon of those member states who urge the Palestine Authority to refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
The Islamic states which continue to seek the destruction of Israel are the major purveyors of the vicious incitement of hatred in the Arab population which serves as an aphrodisiac for the masses in the Arab Street who clamor for “death to Israel and Jews”. It should come as no surprise that the great support in the Arab street for the destruction of the Jewish state serves the political interests of the rulers of those Arab states as an important means of retaining the support of the masses. It is much easier to clamor for the death of Israel and Jews than to demand freedom, jobs and participatory democracy. The refusal of the P.A. to accept Israel’s right to exist clearly serves the political objectives of the practitioners of the Khartoum Declaration and belies the conduct and disposition of the P.A. Even ignoring the Oslo accords, the practical conduct and the many areas of interaction between the P.A., its leaders, and much of its population with Israel, including close security, intelligence and commercial cooperation, and the statements of many proxies for the P.A. leadership show that the P.A. sometimes acts as though it accepts the legal existence of the State of Israel but cannot say so. Recent polls of the Palestinian population show remarkably that many of them would prefer to continue to live under the governance of Israel (e.g. in Jerusalem) should a peace agreement between Israel and the P.A. emerge.
Any P.A. acceptance of Israel’s right to exist would be certain to enrage and inflame much of the Islamic world and the consequences might be complex, to say the least. But such an acceptance would also remove what has come to be seen as the greatest obstacle to any peace agreement, namely the Arab refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
This observation is supported by recent comments of the foremost western scholar and historian of the Moslem world, Professor Bernard Lewis who was recently interviewed at the annual dinner of the America-Israel Friendship League in New York on November 20, 2012. He was asked his opinion on when the Arab-Israel conflict may come to an end. He said:
“I think if you look back at the record the only time when there is a willingness to make peace is when they see themselves as confronting a greater danger.
When Egypt was becoming a soviet colony that was a good incentive for the Egyptians to make peace and Sadat was willing to do so, I think we are now approaching a similar situation and it may be possible again. I would describe my position as cautiously optimistic but whether negotiations are at all likely to succeed depends on one crucial question; What is the dispute about? If the dispute is about the frontiers of Israel, the size of Israel, then it becomes a nice little question like Texas and after several wars and endless negotiations one can eventually arrive at a compromised solution, if on the other hand the conflict is around the existence of Israel, whether or not Israel should exist, then obviously there is no possible compromise. There is no compromise about existing or not existing and as long as the conflict is about that there is no hope for peace at all. One could only hope that at one point there will be a willingness to accept the existence of Israel at which point it becomes a nice simple problem.”
Experience has shown that changing the refusal of the Arab world to accept Israel cannot be accomplished by demanding more concessions from Israel. No government of Israel could or should negotiate the question of whether it has a right to exist.
Demands for Israel’s destruction, and the virulent anti-Semitism which is always part of the hatred of Israel, reflect a contempt for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the desire for freedom and democracy that form the basis of modern society. Respect for human rights is coming to be seen as present in all the revolts and struggles which inflame the Moslem world today.
The time has come for the Arab world to look inwardly and measure the costs which have been expended in the atavistic hatred which has been so costly in blood and treasure and has denied to generations of Arab youth the possibilities of participating in the opportunities and benefits available where freedom and democracy prevail. If the United States wishes to convince the haters of Israel that they must accept Israel’s sovereign legitimacy, it must lead that struggle with determination. President Obama must adopt a clear program to use the forces of diplomacy, political action and economic pressure on the Arab leadership to achieve that objective. Failing that, the struggle cannot end.