Civil Fights: Bumps under the rug

The world must begin to challenge the Arab refusal to acknowledge Israel's right to exist.

anti israel 88 (photo credit: )
anti israel 88
(photo credit: )
There is often more truth about the Arab-Israeli conflict in articles on unrelated subjects than in articles about the conflict itself. Consider, for instance, an item on mapmaking that appeared in the International Herald Tribune two weeks ago. In it, the owner of an Italian company that makes globes discussed issues such as whether Cyprus should be drawn divided or united (most countries do not recognize the island's de-facto division) and whether the gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia should be named the Arabian or the Persian Gulf. Then, in one throwaway sentence, the article hit on the real cause of our conflict: "And in much of the Arab world, Israel is nonexistent." Arab governments and educational institutions insist that their maps and globes eschew all mention of a country called Israel, and mapmakers obediently comply. IT IS HARD to think of another interstate conflict in which one country refuses even to acknowledge the other's existence. Indian and Pakistani maps, for instance, show their disputed border in different places, but both include an entity called "India" or "Pakistan." Neither American nor Soviet maps ever failed to depict the rival superpower during the Cold War. Israel's maps show Syria, a country with which it has been at war since its birth, as well as Iran, whose president routinely vows to wipe it off the rest of the world's maps as well. But in the Arab world, even a depiction of Israel within its pre-1967 armistice lines is anathema. Fifty-nine years after Israel's establishment, the Arab world is still not prepared to accept the Jewish state's existence. It continues to dream that Israel will somehow disappear, and that dream is transmitted to successive generations through its maps. After all, a map reflects what its maker or commissioner deems the "correct" picture of the world. And the "correct" Arab picture of the world is still one where the Zionist entity does not exist. THIS SAME truth was offhandedly acknowledged in a recent New York Times article on another unrelated subject: the possibility of partitioning Iraq. The article cited a column that ran last year in the Dubai-based Gulf News, entitled "Partitioning Iraq: No Starter." In it, author George Hishmeh, a former writer for the US Information Agency, explained that one reason the idea is a nonstarter is that the very word "partition" has "an ugly ring in Arab ears, especially after what happened in Palestine in 1948" - i.e., the UN partition plan that paved the way for Israel's establishment. In other words, 59 years after Israel's creation, the idea of partition is still so taboo in the Arab world that it cannot even be considered in the completely unrelated context of Iraq. How likely is it, then, that the Arab world is ready to accept the "original sin" - partition of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea into two states, one of which would be Jewish? Diplomats tend to dismiss such indications of Arab sentiment as unimportant, insisting that the "real" Arab position is reflected in documents like the Arab peace initiative adopted by the Arab League in 2002 and reaffirmed by an Arab League summit this year. Yet in fact, the Arab peace initiative is completely consistent with the vision shown on Arab maps; diplomats simply prefer to overlook this inconvenient truth. THE DOCUMENT states explicitly that one condition for peace is "a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194." And the Arab world's consistent interpretation of this resolution, ever since its adoption in 1948, has been that it mandates a "right of return" for all refugees and their descendants - currently some 4.3 million people, according to UNRWA - to pre-1967 Israel. Nor does the resolution's text preclude this interpretation (though it also admits other interpretations): It states that "refugees wishing to return to their homes… should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date." Currently, Israel's population of about 7.1 million includes 1.4 million Arabs and 5.4 million Jews. It is not hard to realize that the addition of 4.3 million refugees and their descendants - or even a sizable fraction thereof - would turn Israel from a Jewish-majority state to an Arab-majority or binational state. In other words, the Jewish state would cease to exist, even if the name "Israel" remained on international maps. Here, too, the standard diplomatic response is simply to pretend that the problem does not exist: that this does not reflect the "real" Arab position; it is merely a negotiating tactic. Unfortunately, such assumptions have proven unfounded in the past - as they did at the Camp David summit in 2000 and the subsequent Washington and Taba talks in 2001. Then, too, the working assumption was that Yasser Arafat's stated positions, such as his insistence on the "right of return" and his refusal to acknowledge any Jewish link to the Temple Mount, were mere negotiating tactics. Yet in practice, according to then foreign minister and chief Israeli negotiator Shlomo Ben-Ami, the Palestinians - not only Arafat, but also the current "great white hope" of the peace process, Mahmoud Abbas - proved unwilling to budge from these positions. PEACE, ACCORDING to the cliché, is made with enemies. But it cannot be made with an enemy that refuses to acknowledge your right to exist. That is the real root of the conflict, and until it is resolved, no amount of territorial concessions will make any difference. Yet it will never be resolved as long as the international community insists on sweeping it under the rug. Thus if the world truly wants the Arab-Israeli conflict settled, it must begin challenging the Arab refusal to acknowledge Israel's right to exist wherever and whenever it comes up - from the public refusal by heads of state to abandon their demand for a "right of return" to the lowly globes that are teaching a whole new generation of Arab schoolchildren that the Jewish state does not, should not and, if God is kind, someday will not exist.