Interesting Times: Playing pretend

In the international community, apearances count for far more than reality.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
The whole world - even Russia and Egypt - is ostensibly demanding that Hamas recognize Israel's right to exist. Yet what is really being demanded is that Hamas pretend to accept Israel, like the PLO did in 1988. Unfortunately, as we have seen, pretend recognition can only produce pretend peace. Luckily, perhaps, Hamas has shown few signs of giving up its hallmark honesty as to its goals. As Mahmoud al-Zahar, a key Hamas leader, explained to an Israeli paper during the campaign in October: "Some Israelis think that when we talk of the West Bank and Gaza it means we have given up our historic war. This is not the case." Speaking in Sudan this week, Khaled Mashaal, Hamas's Damascus-based leader, said: "Our goal is to free Jerusalem and to purify Al-Aksa Mosque... Don't fear, we will not recognize Israel." Referring to the prospect of a Western aid cutoff, he added: "We are a nation which is ready to starve and die." All this is considered bad news. The good news, we are told, would be if Hamas, as many diplomats still expect, changed its tune and "recognized" Israel. But what does recognition really mean? It is not inconceivable that massive international pressure could induce Hamas to "recognize" Israel, despite its leaders' current bravado. But, in reality, all the international community is demanding is what it demanded of the PLO: that it recognize Israel's reality - which is hard to miss - rather than accept that Israel has any real right to exist. Students of the peace process will notice that the PLO did, in fact, commit to much more than acknowledging Israel's reality. In his letter to Yitzhak Rabin of September 1993, Yasser Arafat stated, "The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security." It continued, "The PLO considers [Oslo's signing] a historic event, inaugurating a new epoch of peaceful coexistence, free from violence and all other acts which endanger peace and stability. Accordingly, the PLO renounces the use of terrorism and other acts of violence and will assume responsibility over all PLO elements and personnel in order to assure their compliance, prevent violations and discipline violators." One could hardly ask for more heartwarming commitments. Why didn't they stick? THE TWO standard theories are: Israel ruined everything by expanding settlements; or, alternatively, Arafat only intended to keep the agreement until Israeli concessions ran out, and planned to get the rest through terrorism. A simple thought experiment validates the second theory; if Israel had not added a single home to a single settlement, it is hard to imagine that Arafat's refusal of the state offered to him in 2000 at Camp David, or his subsequent launching of a terror war, would have played out any differently. The salient problem was neither settlements, most of which Israel offered to abandon, nor what Arafat promised, which almost could not have been better. The problem was that neither the West nor Israel took the task of forcing a true Palestinian ideological transformation seriously. For comparison, note the sea change that has occurred in Israeli thinking since 1993. The day before the Oslo Accords were announced, almost all Israelis regarded the PLO as a terrorist organization and a Palestinian state, certainly one led by the PLO, as anathema. In our next election, though the rump Likud remains, on paper, opposed to a Palestinian state, the parties to its right are only expected to win about 10 seats. Israelis have, on the whole, come to see the creation of a Palestinian state as in their interest. A similar transformation was supposed to occur on the Palestinian side. The PLO had been as openly committed to Israel's total destruction as Hamas is today. In addition to formally giving up that goal, Palestinians might have been expected to come to accept the Jewish right to a state in Israel as similar to their own, and even in their interest. This is not as farfetched as it might sound. Even today, Palestinians are wealthier and, in many respects, freer than their Syrian, Egyptian, and even Jordanian neighbors. This is clearly due to Israel, and the contrast between the Palestinians' lot and the rest of the Arab world would become even sharper if the Palestinians chose to live in peace with Israel. But in practice, no one ever asked the Palestinians to transform themselves, as Israelis have. The idea that Palestinians would accept that the Jews have created a state here by right, and are not just thieves sitting on "stolen Palestinian land," is never really contemplated, let alone considered realistic. Why, indeed, should we pursue such a utopian goal? Egyptians and Jordanians still believe that Israel has no real right to exist, yet they seem to have resigned themselves to accepting Israel. Shouldn't such a pragmatic result be our objective with the Palestinians? Yes, but only on an interim basis, and only if we do not delude ourselves into calling the result "peace." We should recognize that the refusal to accept Israel is a particularly virulent subset of the general Islamist refusal to regard any non-Islamic sovereignty anywhere, including in the Arab world, as legitimate. The real objection to Israel is Islamic, not nationalist. True nationalists can abide two states, Islamists can't. The ultimate goal cannot be just for Hamas, or Palestinians generally, to mouth recognition that Israel exists, but to abandon the idea that non-Muslim sovereignty is illegitimate. This may be a long-term objective, but we cannot get there if we don't begin. Western leaders should say that the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict, like the root cause of the Islamist war against the West, is the rejection of any right of non-Muslims to hold power. The war is not against terrorism, but against the ideology that produces terrorism. Compelling Hamas to pretend that it accepts Israel may be a necessary first step. More necessary is to realize that while those who reject "Christian" sovereignty over America and Europe are considered wild-eyed extremists, the analogous view of Israel remains mainstream throughout the Arab world among "nationalists" and Islamists alike.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11