Interesting Times: The timing of peace

Unless and until we assert our rights, the right time will recede into the distance

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
There is one thing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is right about: At least as important as the "what" of a deal is the "when." Olmert says that now is the absolute best time for a deal. But he is wrong about that - there could not be a much worse time to reach a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The reason is not that a deal is undesirable. Imagine for a moment that, as part of a peace deal, the entire world, including the Arab states, immediately opened embassies in Israel's capital, Jerusalem. Even a deeply flawed agreement might be considered in exchange for such a prize, on the grounds that it would shift realities irreversibly in Israel's favor. But even such an outcome, as risky as it is, is not possible this year, barring major advances in the US campaign against the Iranian regime. Nor is the obstacle an Israeli unwillingness to give. If there is anything we know about Olmert, it is that he is willing to be extremely reckless and is able to rationalize almost any Israeli concession and cross any "red line," particularly when his political survival and inflated sense of his place in history are at stake. Olmert is the most "courageous" Israeli leader conceivable, where "courage" is defined as willingness to make concessions in the name of peace that sow the seeds of perpetual war. In this, Olmert is replaying Ehud Barak's performance at Camp David - only more so, in that Olmert would have to "build" on Barak's concessions with some of his own. But even this would not be enough to produce a fundamental Arab shift toward peace because the Arab world has no reason, in its view, to make peace with Israel, and every reason not to. TAKE THE Saudi regime, for example. It believes that the US is not serious about confronting Iran, so Iran will obtain nuclear weapons and will stoke the fires of Islamist radicalism in the region. Under such circumstances, why would the Saudis risk making peace with Israel even if they wanted to? And why would they want to, given that peace with Israel means giving up the only rallying point the Arab world has and ratifying a fundamental reversal of the advance of Islam? What Olmert - and the US, for that matter - seem to fail to understand is that the Arab world will end its quest to destroy Israel only if the West is obviously ascendant and radical Islamism is undeniably in retreat. In such a context, it is permitted and understood within Islam that setting aside jihad, at least temporarily, is warranted. Such is not the situation today. Radical Islamism is on the cusp of receiving its biggest shot in the arm since the Iranian revolution of 1979 and since September 11, 2001: the advent of a jihadist regime with a nuclear arsenal, or the capability of building one. To some, this is a reason for Israel to rush to make peace. Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and now Ehud Olmert have all used the argument that time is not on our side - whether because of an Iranian bomb, demographic threats, or both - to justify a particular push for agreement. But this mindset pretends that it is Israeli willingness to make concessions, not Arab willingness to end their war against us, that determines the timing of peace. Real peace is always in Israel's interest, regardless of threats of all kinds and regardless of the current diplomatic climate. Real peace is the ultimate victory of Zionism, the dream of every Israeli, and the beginning of the next stage of Jewish history. Achieving it, however, does not depend on an Israeli leader throwing caution to the winds, but on steadfastly insisting on what real peace means: Arab acceptance that "Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people," as President George Bush put it last week in Jerusalem. The two fundamental expressions of this Jewish right to a homeland in Israel are Jewish sovereignty over the "holy basin" in Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, and abandonment of Palestinian demands to move to Israel, or what is called the "right of return." Mahmoud Abbas won't agree to these things because he will be branded as a traitor by Hamas and because, with both the US and Israel seeming to be in desperate pursuit of a Palestinian state, he has every reason to believe that eventually Israel will concede these points. IN ESSENCE, the negotiations come down to this: Will Israel give up on fundamental pillars of its sovereignty, or will Palestinians permanently close the door to renewed war against Israel? Even Hamas would be happy to create a state in the West Bank and Gaza, or what they call "22 percent of Palestine," if they don't have to really give up their claims on the other 78 percent, namely Israel. If Abbas can get Israel to give up sovereignty on the Temple Mount it will be seen by the Arab world as Israel admitting that it has no historic connection to the land. And if Israel agrees that the Palestinians have a "right of return" - even if that "right" is extremely circumscribed in numbers - then, again, Israel will have conceded that Palestinians have rights in Israel that Israelis don't have in Palestine. Such an agreement might be labeled "peace," but it would invite more war. It would not be followed by Arab states building embassies in Jerusalem, because these states would not risk any gesture toward a Jewish state that had fundamentally weakened itself. The alternative to Israel making such suicidal concessions is to reject them as unapologetically and as often as the Palestinians demand them, and to reiterate our own basic demand: that Jewish national rights be recognized as at least equivalent to Palestinian national rights. All Israel is asking of the Arab world is what Israel is offering to the Palestinians: unequivocal recognition of our sovereign and historic rights. The sooner Israel projects that it will not settle for less than such recognition, the sooner the Arab world will consider making peace. The more Israel signals, even through silence, that these fundamentals might be negotiable, the more the possibilities for peace will recede. [email protected]

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