There is nothing new about the “new American policy” announced by 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
current 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
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 outward.
Both of these
pillars represent fundamental misunderstandings of the conflict. The conflict is
not symmetrical or local; it is asymmetrical and regional.
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 and see evenhandedness as a fig leaf for
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 a politician on the far left of Israeli politics. Before the 1993 Oslo
Accords, it was illegal for an Israeli to speak to the PLO.
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-Hizbullah 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 recently 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
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
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 UN 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
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 as long as the radical Islamist camp is on
the brink of achieving strategic immunity by way of an Iranian nuclear
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 fuel 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.
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.
The writer is coauthor, with Dan Senor, of
Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle and a former Jerusalem
Post editorial page editor and columnist. This article was first published on
www.bitterlemons.org and is reprinted with permission.
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