Almost 20 years after the PLO asserted that it was ready to end the "armed struggle" and reconcile to the fact of Israel's existence, and days before the Annapolis talks are set to herald a resumption of substantive diplomatic negotiations, Israel finally this week began to put the Palestinians on the spot.
Yasser Arafat's purported readiness to come to terms with Israel in the late 1980s helped create the sense of optimism here that saw Yitzhak Rabin elected prime minister in 1992, and the subsequent attempt at peacemaking via the Oslo Accords. But strikingly, through the highs and lows of that process, the Palestinians were never pressed as to the precise character of the Israel they had in mind when they made their pledges of recognition and intended reconciliation. "Final status" issues, critically including the fate of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants, were set aside in the hope that gradually improving day-to-day relations would ultimately create an atmosphere in which those knottiest problems could be solved.
That moment never came, and the Palestinians and their leadership were not required to make explicit a commitment not merely to peacemaking with Israel, but to peacemaking with Israel the Jewish state, revived sovereign homeland of the Jewish nation. In his immensely detailed book on the Oslo years, The Process: 1,100 days that Changed the Middle East, Uri Savir, the then-Foreign Ministry director-general and central Oslo architect, devotes next to no attention to the subject, and indeed barely mentions the refugee issue and the unrelenting Palestinian demand for a "right of return" that would spell the end of Jewish Israel.
When "final status" issues were eventually placed fair and square on the table, at Camp David in the summer of 2000 and in the subsequent final months of the Clinton Administration, Arafat balked at the necessity to compromise Palestinian maximalist demands for the sake of a viable two-state solution. The conflicting narratives are plentiful, but the fact is that Arafat has gone down in history as the man who refused to endorse a renunciation of the "right of return," and in so doing chose not to clear the path to the establishment of Palestine.
More than a year and a half after Camp David, as the bloody consequences of its failure were unfolding in the second intifada terror war, Arafat was still publicly obfuscating and dissembling. In a New York Times op-ed piece that bore his byline in February 2002, he wrote encouragingly about seeking "creative solutions to the plight of the refugees while respecting Israel's demographic concerns."
But the selfsame article specified the "right of return" as guaranteed under international law, and added: "Just as we Palestinians must be realistic with respect to Israel's demographic desires, Israelis too must be realistic in understanding that there can be no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if the legitimate rights of these innocent civilians continue to be ignored. Left unresolved, the refugee issue has the potential to undermine any permanent peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. How is a Palestinian refugee to understand that his or her right of return will not be honored but those of Kosovar Albanians, Afghans and East Timorese have been?"
Throughout this period, moreover, Arafat continued to deride the Jews' historical connection to their holiest sites, dismissing the notion that a Jewish Temple ever stood in Jerusalem, and the Palestinian media apparatus under his control relentlessly delegitimized Jewish rights to sovereignty in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Palestinian refugees and their descendants were deliberately allowed to fester in refugee camps, and the unique criteria used by the United Nations for determining Palestinian refugee status continued to inflate refugee numbers and thus exacerbate an already immensely problematic issue.
Only now, in the chaotic run-up to Annapolis - an event that seems to be metamorphosing before our eyes from a historic summit, at which substantive progress was to have been announced, to a brief meeting prefacing the planned formal restart of negotiations - is Israel attempting to resolve this fundamental lacuna.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is pressing the Palestinian leadership to explicitly commit itself to coexistence alongside the Jewish state. He wants Mahmoud Abbas - the Palestinian leader so widely hailed as a departure from Arafat, who nonetheless has repeatedly embraced his predecessor's legacy this week at events marking three years since Arafat's death - to publicly come to terms with an Israel that has an overwhelmingly Jewish population, and whose existence marks the renewal of historic Jewish national sovereign rights.
"We won't hold negotiations on our existence as a Jewish state," Olmert told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday, echoing remarks he had made in a speech to the Saban Forum a few days earlier. "This is a launching point for all negotiations. We won't have an argument with anyone in the world over the fact that Israel is a state of the Jewish people. Whoever does not accept this cannot hold any negotiations with me. This has been made clear to the Palestinians and the Americans."
Olmert seemed to muddy things a little, by going on to say something that would postpone this requirement to the very end of the diplomatic process: Palestinians' recognition of "Israel as 'a Jewish state,'" he was quoted as saying, "will be a condition for our recognition of a Palestinian state."
But on Wednesday, the Prime Minister's Office nailed the matter unequivocally. According to a statement it issued after his meeting with European Union envoy Javier Solana, Olmert "referred to Israel's insistence that the foundation for the post-Annapolis negotiations with the Palestinians be recognition of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people." Olmert, the statement went on, "made it clear that from Israel's point of view, this issue is not subject to either negotiations or discussion." Recognize Israel as the Jewish state now, in other words, or the renewed diplomatic progress will be over before it has begun.
If this demand is indeed steadfastly and unequivocally pressed, the portents for its acceptance are not good. The Palestinian Authority's Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, the longtime chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat and the veteran PLO executive committee member Yasser Abed Rabbo all rushed this week to reject it as an impossibility. "It is only a Zionist party that deals with Israel as a Jewish state, and we did not request to be a member of the international Zionism movement," said Abed Rabbo dryly.
Echoed Erekat in one interview, "the Palestinians will never acknowledge Israel's Jewish identity." And in another, he elaborated: "When they say that they want us to recognize a Jewish state, that is impossible. There is no country in the world where religious and national identities are intertwined."
Leaving aside the patent absurdity of that latter claim given the 55-strong state membership of the Islamic Conference, the British monarch's place at the head of the Church of England, and similar "intertwinings" everywhere from Bhutan to Argentina (as noted by Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe this week), those brief comments by Erekat are particularly dismal. They suggest that even he, a key Palestinian negotiator who has spent untold hours in discussions with Israeli leaders, resists internalizing and acknowledging the essence of Israel - Israel, that is, the revived homeland of the ancient Jewish nation; the only homeland where the Jewish nation has ever been sovereign or sought sovereignty, the land to which the Jewish nation, sustained by its faith over centuries of exile, prayed and the only land to which it sought its return.
In a telephone interview with me on Thursday afternoon, Erekat again expressed outrage at the demand, gave a little ground, but certainly did not meet Olmert's specific condition. "Israel has rights in the Middle East and the majority of Israelis are Jews," he said. "And when we recognized Israel, we recognized the composition of the state."
Dan Meridor, the former justice minister who was at Camp David seven years ago, noted to The Jerusalem Post this week that even Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state would leave dangerous wiggle room on the refugee issue, since "they can argue that a state with a 60 percent Jewish majority, and not an 80% majority [as at present], is still Jewish." What is important, therefore, said Meridor, "is an agreement specifying the end of the conflict with no right of return."
In terms of the negotiating process and the practical specifics of an agreement, Meridor is correct. But it is primarily a psychological hurdle that the Palestinians have to clear. Alongside their demand for their own sovereign entity, they have to come to terms with the rights of the Jewish nation in this land, and the consequent necessity to relinquish the demand for a "right of return." And Olmert, for whatever reason, has chosen to demand that they do so now.
The failure of the Palestinian leadership to make this shift itself, and thus to confront its people with the need to do so, is evident from opinion poll after opinion poll among the Palestinians showing overwhelming opposition to compromise on the refugee issue. In the latest survey conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, among 1,200 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, in early November, for instance, 66.8% chose the "return of all the refugees to their original homes" as their favored solution to the refugee issue.
But surveys aside, the failure is also starkly evident on the ground, in the reality of the Gaza Strip: Israel has had no presence in Gaza for more than two years. International willingness to help fund the relocation of Gaza's refugees to permanent homes in the Strip cannot be doubted. Yet the refugee wound has been left to fester even after the Israelis have gone, because the notion of overwhelming Jewish Israel by weight of refugee-influx numbers is still unchallenged.
As Annapolis looms closer, with even its scaled down joint statement of principles still anything but finalized, Olmert is said to be confident that the "Jewish Israel" genie he chose to let loose will yet be satisfactorily addressed there. That confidence is not shared by the Israeli negotiating team that is attempting to formulate a mutually acceptable text with the Palestinians. But Erekat, in our interview, also reckoned it would not derail resumption of the negotiating process. Centrally involved in the talks on the joint statement, he said it would be "guided by the road map" rather than by Olmert's demand.
It may be that the prime minister believes the issue he has chosen to put front and center can be finessed. In its 1988 declaration of Palestinian independence, the PLO made note of "UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (1947), which partitioned Palestine into two states, one Arab, one Jewish..." - a reference that some might interpret as a measure of acknowledgement for Israel's Jewish character. But now that prominent Palestinian figures have so bitterly rejected explicit recognition, that kind of finesse would be harder to swallow on the Israeli side, and certainly would not go down well with the more hawkish elements of the coalition.
Israel committed a strategic error in not requiring the Palestinians to recognize Israel as "the Jewish state" at the very start of the attempts at peacemaking almost 20 years ago. Postponement of that moment of fundamental reckoning has only spelled bloodshed and the development of the false sense on the Palestinian side that it can yet be subverted.
Among the key questions now are how tenaciously Olmert will hold to his demand, whether some kind of finesse will be found, and how this will impact on Olmert's governing coalition. But perhaps the most interesting question is why the prime minister chose to raise this most legitimate of demands at this particularly delicate juncture.
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