If there is a single word to describe global attitudes toward the Arab-Israeli conflict it would be "exasperation."
One after another, leaders bang their heads against it. For the most ambitious, like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, there are last-ditch attempts to make their mark on the most intractable of disputes - as if even the noble pursuit of the holy grail of international politics will cast an aura on their final months in office.
Many of these leaders proclaim the utter centrality of this conflict, implying that achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace is the key to defusing the entire Islamist jihad against the West.
This paradigm, of course, turns matters on their head, because the Islamist war against Israel is a prime example of jihad, not its cause.
Yet this conflict is central for another reason: because the global jihad against the West will not be won until its anti-Israel branch is defeated as well. Blair and others are right that peace with Israel would be a great defeat for global jihad. But how should this be brought about?
Stopping Iran is the key. Iran is the pyromaniac who is setting fires throughout the region. Putting out those fires may be necessary, but does not address the source of the problem. It is impossible to imagine the Arab-Israeli situation improving if Iran is allowed to provide a nuclear umbrella to Hizbullah, Hamas, Syria and al-Qaida.
But does this mean there is nothing that the international community can do, outside of addressing the Iranian threat? Actually, there is something, and last week two world leaders took baby steps to do it.
ON DECEMBER 12, outgoing UN Secretary General Kofi Annan included in his description of a peace agreement "a solution that respects the rights of Palestinian refugees and is consistent with the two-state solution and with the character of the states in the region." And on December 13, Italian President Romano Prodi said Italy recognized Israel as a Jewish state, and also "recognized the need for there to be a continuation of this in the future."
This is, granted, pretty tepid stuff. Annan could not bring himself to say "a Jewish state," but instead hinted at it by speaking of the "character of states in the region." Prodi, as well, did not explicitly call on the Palestinians to abandon their claim of a "right of return" to Israel, and not just to a future state of Palestine.
But the reluctance to say something so basic illustrates the fundamental reason why the "peace process" is in such bad shape. These tentative moves in the right direction show how much more can be done.
Imagine, for example, if President George W. Bush were to, instead of just hinting in a carefully worded letter to Ariel Sharon in April 2004, openly say that the Palestinians cannot claim to accept Israel's right to exist if they continue to claim a right to move there by the millions.
For decades, the Palestinians have been trying to have it both ways: claiming that they have accepted Israel's right to exist, the road map and the two-state solution, while at the same time making demands that, if fulfilled, would eliminate the Jewish state.
Most countries, presumably, have tolerated this on the grounds that it is simply a negotiating position, and that the Palestinians know they will have to give it up in order to make peace with Israel. This is a fine theory, but events have proven it wrong. In 2000, Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton went to Camp David believing this theory, and found instead that Yasser Arafat had no intention of giving up the "right of return." How could he? He had not prepared the Palestinians at all for such a concession, and no nation had overtly stated that it must be made.
DEEPLY ENTRENCHED positions cannot turn on a dime (though Sharon's pledge to dismantle settlements might be considered such an abrupt turnaround). It took years for the issue of Palestinian statehood to shift from anathema to necessity; from defining a deep rift in the Israeli political spectrum to being widely seen as a requirement to preserve Israel's democratic and Jewish character.
The Palestinians need to travel a similar road before they can extricate themselves from their current suicidal spiral. But they cannot do it themselves. They need help.
The international community can help the Palestinians face the need to abandon the "right of return" the same way it drummed into Israel the necessity of a Palestinian state. Israelis got the message. Palestinians didn't, because the message has not been sent.
America and Europe do the Palestinians no favors by being coy and technical on this. Sure, refugees are a "final-status issue" that the international community is not supposed to prejudice. Acceptance of Israel's right to exist, however, is not a final-status matter, but, according to the road map and common sense, a prerequisite for the entire peace process.
The Western refusal to naturally and vocally rule out the "right of return" is taken by the jihadis as an encouraging sign of weakness. It is at the center of their theory of victory.
The Palestinians, after all, cannot overrun Israel with tanks. Their only hope of destroying Israel, aside from an Iranian Bomb, is to convince the world that they have a "right" to demographically transform the only Jewish state into the 22nd member of the Arab League.
If the West and the Arab states want to do something to promote peace, the simplest and most important step is to separate out the idea of Palestinians moving to Israel from the refugee problem as a whole. The latter is a matter for negotiation, the former must be ruled out now for any two-state solution to advance.
Though Annan and Prodi have opened the door a crack, it is the US that must step through it, as usual, and lead the way.
- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11
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