Peace 2007 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
In his speech opening the Knesset's winter session yesterday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert covered a lot of ground. He and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik exhorted the members to debate with civility, a call that once again will likely, unfortunately, go unheeded. He announced a major push to advance the drafting of a constitution during Israel's 60th year.
Inevitably, however, these and other critical issues will go largely ignored as the spotlight shines on the issue that has preoccupied us throughout the modern Jewish state's short history, the conflict with the Arab world. Once again, a diplomatic "process" is emerging, prodding us to ask ourselves how this particular layer, heaped upon so many others, might conceivably be different.
The difference, we are told, is that for the first time, a Palestinian leadership has emerged that is truly interested in accepting the two-state solution: namely, a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
This is a striking claim, both for what it says about the Palestinians now and what it says about the last few decades of diplomacy. Israelis, after all, have been hearing that Palestinians recognize Israel's right to exist since 1987, when Yasser Arafat "renounced" terrorism and the US opened a dialogue with the PLO. We heard the same again in 1993, with the signing of the Oslo accords.
Yet it was after all this "recognition," following Israel's attempt to actually create a Palestinian state by agreement in 2000, that years of a vicious suicide bombing campaign ensued, as did the rise of Hamas, which openly embraces terror and rejects Israel's right to exist within any borders.
Now, in the context of the latest talks between Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, we catch a glimmer of how, until now, the more the Palestinians have claimed to "recognize" Israel, the more entrenched their fight against Israel seemed to become. This glimpse comes in the form of a letter to Abbas from Salman Abu Sitta, a prominent spokesman for Palestinian refugees, as reported by our correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh.
"We are aware of the pressure you are under to abandon the Palestinian position and endorse Israel's vision," Abu Sitta writes. "But what has drawn our attention more than anything is Israel's attempt to redefine the two-state solution. Israel now wants mutual recognition - Israel as the national homeland for the Jews and, on what's left of the land, Palestine as the national homeland of the Palestinians."
Abu Sitta called on all Arabs to reject this Israeli formula as "extremely dangerous," since it was tantamount to abandoning the Arab right to Palestine and accepting Jewish historical and biblical rights to the land. In his eyes, such a formula would also "abandon the right of return after decades of fighting."
This letter is revealing because it suggests that, for all the previous Palestinian talk of recognizing Israel and the previous ostensible embrace of the "two-state solution," this never meant either an acceptance of the Jewish right to sovereignty in its ancient land, or even to accepting Israel's right not to be overwhelmed demographically by Palestinians.
In short, Abu Sitta is accusing Abbas of considering peace with Israel in the sense that Israelis, Europeans, Americans and any other supporters of peace understand the word: peace with Israel, not peace as a euphemism for the struggle to destroy Israel.
We can only hope that Abu Sitta is right, that Olmert is right, in their assessment of Abbas's intentions.
But beyond such hope, Abu Sitta's concerns demonstrate two critical lessons for true peace-seekers: 1) that past agreements and diplomacy cannot be taken as proof that Palestinians have truly come to terms with building a state alongside Israel, and 2) that the demand of a "right of return" to Israel is completely inconsistent with the plain meaning of the two-state solution as Israel and the West understand it.
We do not know what, if anything, will emerge from the planned conference in Annapolis next month. We do know that success or failure should not be measured by whether some document is produced, but by whether the Palestinians show some sign of accepting exactly what Abu Sitta fears: that peace with Israel means ending the campaign to destroy Israel.
This is why it has become so important for Israel that the Arab side accept the Jewish people's right to renewing its national self-determination in this land, not just Israel's de facto existence. If the Arab world in general, and the Palestinians in particular, are not ready to accept the former, they are not ready for peace. If they continue to meaninglessly repeat only the latter, they are reserving the right to continue to seek Israel's destruction.
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