(photo credit: AP)
There is no love lost between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, his party colleague who called on him to resign in the wake of the Winograd's Committee's interim report. So many assume that Olmert's decision to appoint Livni head of the negotiating team for the Annapolis summit is a clever political move designed to entrap her in responsibility for any conceivable outcome.
But regardless of Olmert's motives, Livni's appointment could have an important effect on that outcome. She has long taken an interest in the true pivot of the conflict, the Palestinian demand for the "right of return." Now her goal and motto should be a simple one: without positive Palestinian movement on that, there is little point to the summit and no basis for Israeli concessions.
When Ariel Sharon went to Washington in 2004 seeking assurances to back the planned unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, it was reportedly Livni who pressed Sharon to obtain a US statement on the "right of return." The resulting statement, though vague and very rarely repeated, was significant: "The United States is strongly committed to Israel's security and well-being as a Jewish state. It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel" (emphasis added).
The last four words of this paragraph, from President George Bush's letter to Sharon, walked the US back from one of the most problematic aspects of the Clinton Parameters, issued after the collapse of the 2000 Camp David summit during the final days of the Clinton and Barak administrations. That blueprint includes Israel as one of a number of possible destinations for "refugees" (most of whom are actually descendants of refugees under the normal UN definition) as part of a final status agreement.
Livni's job should be to build on the Bush letter. While Palestinian leaders have repeatedly claimed to recognize Israel's right to exist, they have never uttered the words "Jewish state." This cannot be regarded as an oversight, but rather as a conscious effort to keep the door open to destroying Israel demographically through a flood of "refugees." It should be obvious that the moment Israel ceases to be a Jewish state, governed democratically by a large Jewish majority, it will cease to exist.
This is not an academic or semantic problem. That the Palestinians have to date been unwilling to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and even deny, as Yasser Arafat did, any legitimate Jewish connection to the Temple Mount, Western Wall or any other part of Israel, amounts to a denial of Israel's right to exist. Unless or until this is rectified, their purported acceptance of a two-state solution is unconvincing, a ruse; thus far, there is only one state to whose legitimacy they are committed: Palestine.
While this problem has been set aside as a "final status issue," it is not. The Palestinian refugee problem must be divided into two parts. The first is the disposition of refugees and their descendants in a future Palestinian state and elsewhere outside of Israel - this is a legitimate matter for final status negotiations. The second is the claim of a "right of return" to Israel, which has little to do with where refugees should go and everything to do with denying Israel's right to exist.
Successful negotiations toward a two-state solution cannot proceed in earnest when one side denies the fundamental legitimacy of the other's state. Such a challenge violates the principle of mutual recognition, which must be established as a prerequisite to negotiations rather than as their hoped for result.
One would like to be fully confident that the prime minister would walk away from any deal that does not advance this fundamental position, but such confidence is in short supply. The immediate question, therefore, is whether Livni will insist on this bedrock Israeli interest as a condition for her support for any document.
Livni can point out that what Israel is demanding should not be seen as a Palestinian concession, but the sine qua non of the two-state blueprint, whose implementation is presumed to be, first and foremost, a Palestinian goal and interest. If Mahmoud Abbas regards genuine recognition of Israel as a concession, and is unable or unwilling to make it, then there is no practical difference between his camp and Hamas, which openly rejects Israel's legitimacy. If, however, Abbas is willing to formally recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, and to abandon the demand for the demographic influx that would negate it, the path to substantive progress would be opened.