For decades there existed two obvious criteria to determine who was serious about making peace between Israel and the Arabs or Palestinians and who was standing in the way of peace.
The first, and most basic standard, was whether a party was ready to negotiate with the other on the basis of accepting the other’s legitimacy. The second was, once negotiations commenced, what did the parties put on the table to demonstrate that they were negotiating in good faith.
From the day of the decision by the United Nations on November 29, 1947 to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish, one Arab, the Arab states and the indigenous Palestinian Arab community made clear that they would not accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state nor negotiate peace with it. The most famous expression of this determination took place several months after the 1967 Six Day War, when the Arab League met in Khartoum and declared the three nos: no peace, no recognition, no negotiations. This at a time when Israel had hopes that after the war, the Arabs, recognizing that Israel was too strong to be eliminated, would begin to think differently about dealing with Israel. It was clear that the obstacle to peace lay on the Arab side.
In the ensuing years there have been several shifts that affect this assessment of who are the peacemakers. Two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, not only agreed to negotiate with Israel on the basis of Israel’s legitimacy but negotiated in good faith and reached peace agreements with the Jewish state. Unfortunately, the willingness of other Arab states to do likewise has not been evident.
At the same time, the focus of the conflict shifted from the Israel-Arab sphere to the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Whether this was a logical or useful transition is a subject for another discussion, but it happened and came to dominate the diplomatic focus.
Until the Oslo process and the agreement on the White House lawn between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, the evidence as to who was interested in peace was clearcut. The Palestine Liberation Organization rejected Israel’s right to exist and negotiations were not on the agenda.
After Oslo, whatever interpretation one would give to Palestinian intentions, the issue of the unwillingness to negotiate based on the other’s legitimacy had now shifted. Now both sides were negotiating.
From that point onwards, what happened at negotiations, whether during the Oslo process, the Camp David talks in 2000 or the Annapolis process in 2007, determined the perception of who was truly interested in peace. The greatest moment of clarity in this regard took place after the collapse of the Camp David talks when President Bill Clinton let the world know that he believed Arafat was responsible for the collapse, that Prime Minister Ehud Barak had made a substantial offer to the Palestinians that deserved consideration. It was clear then that Israel was the peacemaker and the Palestinians continued to be seen as the obstacle to peace.
While there has been some revisionist history written about what happened at Camp David, what is most significant for this discussion is that there was a general assumption, as had existed for years, that the way to assess who was interested in peace remained the two criteria: a willingness to negotiate and how one negotiated.
That has now changed, and this is a disturbing and destructive development. For the last two years, the Palestinians have refused to negotiate with the Israelis. The role the Obama Administration played in all this by making an Israeli settlement freeze a precondition to negotiations has been well documented.
What is significant, however, in terms of broad international reaction to this vacuum is that a change has taken place in evaluating who is a peacemaker. And it is a change that not only is detrimental to Israel’s image but is harmful to efforts to foster peace. The fact that the Palestinians have refused to negotiate no longer seems to be seen as a basis for saying they are the main obstacle to peace. Not negotiating is no longer the standard for a non-peacemaker. Instead Israel, which has said repeatedly it is ready to negotiate immediately, is held accountable.
Let me be clear: If negotiations would start and Israel would not make a satisfactory offer to the Palestinians, then there could be grounds for criticism of the Jewish state. But to drop the standard that has served so well for so long (it was significant eventually in bringing Egypt and Jordan to peace) is an error of major proportions.
It is time for the world to get back to basics and demand that the Palestinians return now to the negotiating table.