(photo credit: AP [file])
Oslo should have taught everyone the dangers of a "peace process" built on delusions. The delusion then was that Yasser Arafat truly wanted peace. By the time he died, virtually nobody involved in the peace process still believed that, yet the damage had been done: Years of soaring Palestinian terror, and consequent harsh Israeli security measures, eroded belief that peace was possible among Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Yet current Israeli-Palestinian talks are also being built on delusions. And the results are liable to be equally devastating.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert voiced one such delusion at an October 7 cabinet meeting: "For the first time, there is a Palestinian leadership â€¦ that recognizes that Israel is a Jewish state."
Were that true, it would indeed constitute a breakthrough. Unfortunately, neither Mahmoud Abbas nor Salam Fayad has ever recognized any such thing. Neither has ever uttered the words "Jewish state;" neither has ever abandoned the "right of return," which would eliminate the Jewish state demographically by flooding it with 4.4 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants; neither has ever acknowledged the Jews' historical link with this land, which is a vital component of Jewish statehood.
Indeed, Abbas has consistently opposed these ideas. After George Bush called Israel a "Jewish state" at the 2003 Aqaba summit, for instance, senior aides to Abbas were furious, declaring that such a definition was unacceptable and that Bush had "ambushed" the then prime minister. Abbas never dissociated himself from these statements.
SIMILARLY, Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was Israel's foreign minister during the Camp David talks in 2000, later related that during preliminary talks in Stockholm, Palestinian negotiators agreed to discuss limits on how many refugees Israel would absorb. Subsequently, however, "Abu Mazen [Abbas] persuaded [Palestinian negotiator] Abu Ala not to get into any discussion of numbers, but to stick with the principle of the right of return."
Nor has Abbas budged from this position since. In November 2004, while campaigning for the PA chairmanship, he declared: "We will not rest until our people's right to return is granted." In a speech this January, he again declared the right of return "nonnegotiable" and rejected "any attempt to resettle the refugees in other countries."
On the Temple Mount, Abbas rejects even the Clinton formula of Israeli sovereignty "under the mount" and Palestinian sovereignty atop it; he refuses to acknowledge any Jewish rights there at all. Yet if Jews have no rights in Judaism's holiest site, where do they have rights? And if Palestinians cannot accept that Jews - and hence, the Jewish state - have rights here, how is a two-state solution possible?
Indeed, this is one of the issues over which negotiations collapsed in 2000. According to Ben-Ami, he eventually proposed ceding sovereignty over the mount in exchange for Palestinian recognition that "the site is [also] sacred to the Jews." But the Palestinians refused to sign any such statement.
There is no evidence that Abbas's "real" positions differ from his public statements. Yet even if they do, this is meaningless as long as he refuses to say so publicly - because without a concerted effort to alter Palestinian views, public opposition would preclude any concessions on these issues. One recent poll, for instance, found that 94 percent of Palestinians opposed any Israeli authority whatsoever over the Temple Mount, while 69 percent wanted all refugees and their descendants relocated to Israel, dismissing alternatives such as compensation, resettlement in Palestine or a quota for relocations to Israel.
ONE MIGHT argue that if so, Olmert's delusion does not matter: He and Abbas will simply fail to reach an agreement. Yet in fact, it has several negative consequences.
First, by declaring that Abbas and Fayad have recognized Israel as a Jewish state when they have not, Olmert has ensured that Israel will be blamed if the talks collapse: If the PA has indeed taken this crucial step, it can hardly be accused of intransigence.
Second, having created this bind, Olmert is under pressure to make sweeping concessions even with no quid pro quo. Indeed, he hinted as much at the October 7 cabinet meeting: "We will make decisions that aren't easy, including some we had thought we wouldn't need to make."
Given how much previous governments have already conceded (most of the territories, the Temple Mount, much of east Jerusalem), the only concessions that could be described as ones "we had thought we wouldn't need to make" are ones unacceptable to most Israelis: the refugees, the settlement blocs, Jewish areas of east Jerusalem.
Third, anything Israel concedes without a substantive return will irretrievably weaken its future bargaining position, because once made, a concession can no longer be traded for parallel Palestinian concessions. That is precisely what happened with Israel's concessions in 2000-2001: Both the Palestinians and the world view them as mere starting points for further concessions, not as mandating a Palestinian quid pro quo.
FINALLY, there is the second half of Olmert's delusion: His declaration, at that same cabinet meeting, that it was "clear to all" that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state was a condition for attending the Annapolis summit.
In fact, Egypt and Jordan have repeatedly and publicly rejected Israel's self-definition as a Jewish state. Saudi Arabia, Olmert's sought-after guest of honor, does not recognize Israel at all. And even the European Union refuses to utter the phrase "Jewish state," to avoid offending Arab sensibilities.
This international attitude has long been a key impediment to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, because it nourishes the Palestinians' belief that they can make a deal without recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Thus Israel should be insisting that all conference participants voice such recognition publicly. Instead, Olmert has simply redefined nonrecognition as recognition - thereby acquiescing in the world's refusal to press the Palestinians on this issue.
Without Palestinian willingness to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, there will be no deal.
And unless the world makes this clear to the Palestinians, no such willingness is likely to emerge. But instead of confronting these problems, Olmert has opted to pretend they do not exist. And that is a recipe for an Oslo-style disaster.