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(photo credit: AP)
'The psychological shift that has to happen in the Israeli thinking," Quartet envoy Tony Blair told The Jerusalem Post yesterday, "is to move from saying, 'Well, if it happens, it happens, but frankly I'm skeptical about the whole thing,' to saying, 'Okay, I'm going to try and make it happen.'" At the same time, Blair also expressed considerable sympathy for Israeli skepticism, given the bitter experience following Oslo and the unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza.
What was perhaps most interesting about his comments was that even in an interview plainly intended to encourage Israelis to take another chance on peace, Blair could not express full confidence that the Palestinian Authority, under Mahmoud Abbas, would be able to deliver on his side of the bargain - competent governance, security, a stable partnership. It was "not impossible" for the Palestinians to transform themselves, Blair managed. The question was whether the Palestinians were prepared to "shoulder the responsibility," he said. Israel should put them to the test, he advised, since mainstream Israel sees a two-state solution as being in its interest.
Blair's creditably nuanced comments contrasted with a history of world leaders urging Israel to take "risks for peace," and suggesting that a failure to do so was the fundamental obstacle to progress. Indeed, there are still prominent voices exhibiting a strange willingness to attribute intransigence to Israelis while crediting the Arab side with an openness that, unfortunately, has yet to be demonstrated. Speaking to the Saban Forum on Sunday, for example, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: "Most Israelis now believe that a peaceful Palestinian state is in the national interest of Israel... Most Palestinians believe that Israel will always be their neighbor and most believe that no Palestinian state will ever be born through violence. And among the Arab states, as they recently made clear in reaffirming the Arab League Peace Initiative, the question now is not whether Israel should exist, but on what terms to make peace with Israel."
The premise here is a tantalizing one: that there is a fundamental readiness for peace on both sides that is just waiting for the right diplomatic push. Probe a bit deeper, however, and it is evident that a far more basic "psychological shift" is needed on the Palestinian and wider Arab side before the desired peace can become reality.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert alluded to the key problem in his Saban speech: "Annapolis is a landmark... on the path to negotiations and of the genuine effort to achieve the realization of the vision of two nations: the State of Israel - the nation of the Jewish people; and the Palestinian state - the nation of the Palestinian people... There will be no bargaining about this fundamental goal which President George Bush declared so eloquently: 'Two countries for two peoples.' A Jewish state for the Jewish people - a Palestinian state for the Palestinian people."
Olmert was emphasizing the needed symmetry in the vision for peace because, for much of the Arab side, no such symmetry yet exists; in fact, it is systematically denied. The official Arab willingness to say that Israel has a right to exist has confused the West into acting as if the Palestinians and the wider Arab world have truly accepted Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state. But they have not, and indeed continue to deny Israel's legitimacy by claiming a right for millions of refugees and their descendants to move not to a future Palestinian state, but to Israel itself.
The two-state solution has always been dependent on two parallel "psychological shifts": an Israeli acceptance of Palestinian national rights and a Palestinian/Arab acceptance of the Jewish right to a state in Israel.
The former did not always exist. For years, Israel officially denied the existence of a Palestinian people, and for years after that the notion of creating a Palestinian state was rejected by most Israelis and even by the US government. The US and Israeli positions have changed beyond recognition in this respect. Moreover, this sea change in Israel has not just been on the governmental level but has permeated the public and transformed our politics.
By contrast, no Arab or Palestinian leader has uttered the words "Jewish state." This concept evidently remains anathema, because to do so would, in the words of a letter sent to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas by a prominent refugee advocate, "abandon the right of return after decades of fighting." Blair, in our interview, intimated, but did not explicitly state, that Abbas recognizes the imperative to renounce that "right." We shall see.
For now, not only is there no Arab consensus on the acceptability, let alone desirability, of a Jewish state, but defending the notion of Jewish national rights in any part of "Palestine" is still taboo. Compared to the Israeli need to rekindle dashed hopes, the missing "psychological shift" on the Palestinian/Arab side is of tectonic proportions.
It is on creating this shift that international diplomacy must explicitly focus, rather than continuing to pretend that it has already happened. Such an Arab shift not only would directly dismantle the obstacle at the heart of the conflict, but, as should be obvious to all well-meaning international would-be peacemakers, would automatically engender the desired Israeli psychological shift as well.