Fatah gunmen 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The juxtaposition of the anniversary of the passage of the UN General Assembly's partition plan and this week's Annapolis conference is a telling one. The Arab world marks November 29, 1947, as a day of "catastrophe." Sixty years later, the challenge for peacemakers remains what it was then: obtaining Arab acceptance for partition.
This is not how much of the world looks at the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Palestinians have done a stunning job of convincing international, and even much of Israeli, opinion that the obstacle to peace is the absence of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself went so far this week as to say that Israel would be "finished" if the two-state solution collapsed.
When President George Bush or other Western leaders speak of their vision for the region, they often do not speak of peace but of "two states for two peoples" - as if that phrase is so synonymous with peace that the concepts can be used interchangeably.
What is interesting about this state of play is that it can be considered a great victory for both sides. On the one hand, the Arab side signed the entire world, including Israel, on to the idea that Palestine must be created as the 21st Arab state. With this goes the notion that the lack of peace is Israel's fault, since it controls the territory where that state is to arise.
On the other hand, the entire world has also agreed that the purpose of creating such a state would not just be to solve the Palestinian problem, but to ensure that Israel is able, for the first time in its history, to live in full peace and security.
This creates something of a dilemma for the Arab world. No Arab or Palestinian leader has ever acknowledged that the Jewish people has a national right to self-determination in the Land of Israel - that is, the right to establish the "Jewish state" that the UN General Assembly voted for 60 years ago. Rather, the Arab world has acquiesced in Israel's existence without accepting its legitimacy.
Accordingly, most of the Arab world still proclaims the right of millions of Palestinians to move to Israel itself (the "right of return"), still refers in Arabic to cities in sovereign Israel as "settlements," still engages in Holocaust denial and the claim that Israel's only basis for existence is for Europe to atone for genocide, and still tolerates rampant anti-Semitism that is independent of any Israeli policy or action.
In short, the Arab world still harbors the notion of having its cake and eating it too: a Palestinian state without accepting the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.
To this many react either that Israel is being paranoid, or that, in any case, the Arab side can only fully give up its recognition card at the end of the process, not the beginning. Hand over a Palestinian state, this thinking goes, and the Arab world will hand over its full recognition.
However tempting this model may be, it is not how the peace process has been constructed, and for good reason. Every Arab-Israeli agreement - from the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, to Oslo, the road map, and this week's joint statement in Annapolis - is built upon the principle of mutual recognition as a prerequisite for, not a result of negotiations. The Arab side has always fulfilled this demand by accepting Israel's "right to exist" up front, not at the end.
What the run-up to Annapolis, and the glaring omission of the words "Jewish state" from the joint statement sadly underlined, however, is that this Arab "recognition" has always come with a huge asterisk attached to it. The Arab position has been, in essence, "We recognize you, but we have every right to make demands that entirely negate that recognition."
Before Annapolis, Olmert said this charade would come to an end. After Annapolis, he said, he would not negotiate with anyone who refused to accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state - what both sides recognize as code for Palestinians dropping the demand for "return" to Israel, not just their own state.
In the coming weeks we will be looking for Olmert to not only reiterate his pre-Annapolis position, but to follow it. Without real mutual recognition, two states will only bring more war, not peace. The time to find out whether the Arab world is ready for a state beside Israel rather than in its stead is now, not at the end of the process.
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