There is something bizarre about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Everyone assumes, naturally, that it is about Israel giving something that Palestinians want - a state. But what it really is about is the Arab world giving the Jewish people what it wants - a state.
That makes no sense, you might say. After all, Israel exists, Palestine doesn't. How could the conflict be about people who don't have something giving it to people who do? The answer lies in a simple fact of history: The Arab war against a Jewish state not only predates Israeli control over the territories ostensibly in dispute but began before the founding of Israel itself.
"The attacks against us began in the 1920s, escalated into a comprehensive attack in 1948 with the declaration of Israel's independence... and climaxed in 1967, on the eve of the Six Day War," Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Sunday. "All this occurred during the 50 years before a single Israeli soldier ever set foot in Judea and Samaria."
That must have changed, you chime in. At some point Israel must have flipped from being the state deny-ee to being the state denier. Doesn't most of Netanyahu's own party still claim that a Palestinian state would be existential threat? If Israel is not the obstacle, why did Netanyahu have to be dragged into grudgingly supporting a two-state solution? Let's step back a bit and ask another question: What is meant by a "two-state solution"? In Western eyes, the idea is a simple one. The conflict comes from the lack of a Palestinian state. Create a state; end the conflict.
This would be a slam dunk except for one thing. What if the Palestinians see a state of their own not as the beginning of peace but the continuation of war? Quit being paranoid, the world responds. Israel is a regional superpower, and Netanyahu just said that a Palestinian state would have to be demilitarized.
The rub, however, lies not in demilitarization. Savvy Palestinian spokesmen say that's not a problem. The rub is Netanyahu's second "tough" (as media reports call them) condition: "a public, binding and unequivocal Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people."
Now we have finally drilled down to the essence of the conflict, and it's not Israel but the Arab world that is out of step. Look at the official White House reaction to the Netanyahu speech: "The president is committed to two states, a Jewish state of Israel and an independent Palestine, in the historic homeland of both peoples." This is what Palestinians are for, right? Actually, no, this is what even Abbas and other "pro-peace" Arab leaders vehemently reject.
"A Jewish state, what is that supposed to mean?" Mahmoud Abbas asked in an April 27 speech in Ramallah. "You can call yourselves as you like, but I don't accept it and I say so publicly." Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said that calls for recognition of a Jewish state are attempts to "abort" the peace process. "Netanyahu Threatens Peace" was the headline in the Saudi-owned Al Hayat, while Lebanon's Assafir claimed that the speech was "like a declaration of war."
The Arab world has never accepted either part of President Barack Obama's straightforward statement: that Israel is a Jewish state and that it is there not by chance or even because of the Holocaust but because it is the Jewish people's "historic homeland."
WE SEE that the great Arab refusal that began almost a century ago continues today. While the West takes it for granted that "mutual recognition," as the road map and Oslo agreements put it, is the bedrock of peace, the Arab side seeks a Palestinian state without accepting the existence of a Jewish people, let alone a Jewish connection to its historic homeland.
If further evidence of this refusal were needed, the claim of a "right of return" embodies the Arab attempt at obtaining a 22nd state without accepting the single Jewish one. If Palestinians have a permanent "right" to move to Israel, in what sense have they accepted Israeli sovereignty? How can they claim a right to move to Israel while not only denying the right of Jews to move to Palestine, but assuming that it must be ethnically cleansed of all Jews?
Obama is right that the Arab-Israeli conflict is in dire need of truth telling. And every time he uses the words "Jewish state" and "Jewish homeland" he is chipping away at the essence of the conflict. But there is an even more basic, underlying truth to be told: that the Arab world can end the conflict any time it wants.
This is what Obama should have said to the Arab world in Cairo: "End the conflict. Who is stopping you? If you truly accept Israelis, talk to their leaders, stop denying their history and connection to the land, you will have a Palestinian state faster than you can shake a stick." I understand that Obama thinks that the harder he pressures Israel on settlements the more likely the Arabs are to cooperate. But this is exactly backward. Direct pressure on Israel is always taken by the Arabs as an excuse to do nothing.
The smart way to pressure Israel is to put the onus on the Arab side. Why? Because the slightest Arab movement toward peace turns any Israeli government into putty. "Looking back, I confess that well-formulated peace plans are not enough," President Shimon Peres admitted in a recent op-ed. "What brought about the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, signed in 1979, was a journey of less than an hour - the time it took Anwar Sadat to fly from Cairo to Jerusalem. This hour changed... creat[ing] a turning point far more powerful than outside pressure."
The Arab-Israeli conflict is just not symmetrical, no matter how often assorted peacemakers adopt an "evenhanded" approach. After 1967, the Arab states realized they could no longer openly call for Israel's destruction, so they hit on the idea of demanding a Palestinian state - without mentioning that they weren't willing to accept a Jewish state in return.
Now Netanyahu, grudgingly, and Obama, dilutedly, have called the Arab bluff. This has been obscured by Netanyahu's foot-dragging and Obama's fight-picking (with Israel), but the fact remains that it is now the Arab world that has been cast in the role of odd man out.
Preventing Iran - the enemy-di-tutti-enemy of peace - from going nuclear remains the single greatest prerequisite for peace. The much easier yet no less important step is to systematically expose the great Arab refusal, thereby placing asymmetrical responsibility for the conflict on the Arab side. Pressure on the Arab side is a two-fer, because Arab gestures "deliver" Israel; pressure on Israel is a no-fer, because it reduces pressure on the Arab side.