If someone asked for a brief, yet powerful, summary of the Arab-Israeli conflict and where we stand today, I might hand them Ariel Sharon's speech at the United Nations last week. It was a poignant, personal speech, probably the best he has given as prime minister. It was also instructive in comparison to a speech given a decade before by Yitzhak Rabin from the same podium.
Rabin was speaking, 11 days before his assassination, at the UN's jubilee summit. Two things stand out from his speech, aside from the eloquent calls for peace. First, a passionate reference to "those for whom the creation of the United Nations came too late... the Six Million whose lives were turned into ashes, whose souls ascended to heaven in burning flames." Then he made this bluntly prescient statement: "The UN must support those who are working for peace. It must intensify the international struggle against terrorism and its supporters.
"Terrorism is the world's cancer. Don't fool yourselves; even if you ignore terror it can enter any of your homes. Terror must be defeated. Peace must win. This is a fight that we cannot afford to lose."
Ten years later, the core of Sharon's speech was also a plea for and defense of Israel's existence.
"The continuity of Jewish presence in the Land of Israel has never ceased. Even those of us who were exiled from our land, against their will, to the ends of the earth their souls, for all generations, remained connected to their homeland, by thousands of hidden threads of yearning and love, expressed three times a day in prayer and songs of longing."
The first striking comparison, then, is that nothing has changed. Standing before a world body, an Israeli leader feels compelled not so much to advocate as a "citizen" of that body, but to defend his nation's citizenship which for almost every other nation is taken for granted.
Yet some things have changed. Rabin did not say what Sharon said:
"The right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel does not mean disregarding the rights of others in the land. The Palestinians will always be our neighbors. We respect them, and have no aspirations to rule over them. They are also entitled to freedom and to a national, sovereign existence in a state of their own" (emphasis added).
These few words express the conflict and its intended solution in a nutshell. Sharon eloquently expressed the Jewish attachment to "every inch of land, every hill and valley, every stream and rock... saturated with Jewish history, replete with memories." But he insisted that the Jewish bond to Israel can be reconciled with Palestinian aspirations to sovereignty. Unspoken, but glaringly evident, is that the Palestinians can have their state the moment their aspirations become limited to it, rather to a Greater Palestine that includes all of Israel.
Rabin, the iconic peacemaker, did not speak of, let alone endorse, Palestinian sovereignty. Sharon did. And he did so after five years of the most brutal Palestinian terror offensive Israel has ever experienced, a war that, even now, has officially been only suspended and threatens to resume.
This comparison should not only highlight the magnitude of what Sharon has done, but also what Mideast expert Barry Rubin has noted: that Islamist radicalism may have coincided with increasing Israeli pliability, but it has also become the greatest obstacle to achieving the goals it claims to promote. It is the terrorists, Rubin points out, who are doing the most to prevent an American withdrawal from Iraq and the founding of a Palestinian state.
ANOTHER STRIKING shift over the decade: Rabin made no mention of Iran, while Sharon had no choice but to address that threat.
"We know that, even today, there are those who sit here as representatives of a country whose leadership calls to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, and no one speaks out" Sharon said, damningly. "The attempts of that country to arm itself with nuclear weapons must disturb the sleep of anyone who desires peace and stability in the Middle East and the entire world. The combination of murky fundamentalism and support of terrorist organizations creates a serious threat that every member nation in the UN must stand against."
Again, that this had to be said at all is an indictment of the international system, and says more about what is wrong with the United Nations then all the current talk of reform. If the nations of the UN, founded so that free peoples could together repel international aggression, remain blind to the threat of Iran, it hardly matters if the UN is reorganized or its secretariat becomes less corrupt.
Judging from these two speeches, Israel's situation and, not coincidentally, the world's seems to have deteriorated. The threats seem to have grown and the prospects for peace been reduced. Yet none of this should be cause for resignation or despair.
Looking back at the World War II era, two periods of greatest danger stand out: As the storm gathered, but before it was recognized; and while the war was fought, but before it was won.
The dangerous and disturbing aspect of our situation is this: We are still in the process of recognizing that we are at war, even as we are fighting it. The good thing is that once we accept the need to take concerted action against a handful of weak rogue states, the balance of forces even setting aside military action is such that the war is easily won.