Middle Israel: Why Israelis demand recognition

Mahmoud Abbas has a fair grievance; Israel has a fair cause.

Abbas and Netanyahu 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Abbas and Netanyahu 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Mahmoud Abbas has a fair grievance. Why, he asks, should he of all people publicly declare Israel the state of the Jews? Who do we take this unassuming schoolteacher for: David, Herzl, Cyrus the Great?
The soft-spoken Palestinian leader’s good question becomes even more compelling when one considers his reminder that what Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu now wants of him was not even requested from Anwar Sadat and King Hussein who – according to his insinuation – had less reason to spar with Israel than he does, and more clout to face up to it.
Moreover, Abbas has Middle Israelis’ respect. His objection to Yasser Arafat’s terror had in it all the courage and humanity one can hope to see in one’s peace partner. And his subsequent dedication to the West Bank’s prosperity, openness and stability has loomed tall as an antithesis to Gaza’s darkness, zealotry and violence. Yes, Israelis have deep disagreements with Abbas, but he is a reasonable man, a politician rather than a revolutionary, a civilian rather than a gun-toter, an educator rather than a rabble-rouser.
And that is precisely why his good questions should not be left unanswered.
THE FIRST thing to understand about the recognition conundrum is that Israel indeed made a big mistake in its handling of this issue with Egypt during the Camp David talks.
As former director-general of the Foreign Ministry Shlomo Avineri later regretted, a bilateral forum in which he participated at the time failed to reach agreement on mutual reviews of educational textbooks, the way France and West Germany did following World War II. The Egyptians, recalled Avineri, found the idea of any external scrutiny of their internal affairs offensive, and the Israelis thought the issue was not worth the fight.
In that spirit of negligence Israel didn’t fuss over the wording of Egypt’s recognition of it, and the issue that Abbas now faces was indeed on no one’s mind.
The unprecedented exchange of Israeli and Arab ambassadors, which until then seemed unthinkable, seemed to speak volumes about the dawn of a new era, Israeli diplomats believed.
And for two years recognition really seemed genuine, and felt nearly complete.
Even before the peace agreement’s formal signing, a genuine spirit of acceptance emerged along the Nile. As Sadat recalled in his memoirs, five million Egyptians lined the streets of Cairo and cheered him upon his return from his historic visit to Jerusalem. Many were waving little Israeli flags.
Then, when the deal was signed, what had begun as a spontaneous show of recognition turned into institutionalized reconciliation. Israelis flocked in droves to the pyramids and traveled at will from Alexandria through Cairo all the way up to Aswan near the Sudanese border, welcomed all along by the person on the street without the slightest hard feeling. President Yitzhak Navon arrived in Egypt, 30 years ago this month, for a five-day state visit, and was greeted by a 21-gun salute, after which he charmed Cairo’s who’s who with eloquent speeches in perfect Arabic, citing Hebrew prophets and Arab poets. And president Sadat was a frequent and welcome visitor in Israel, and Israeli farming experts were welcomed to Egyptian farms, and an Israeli academic center worked hectically in Cairo.
In short, a relationship of mutual recognition was emerging, both formally and organically. Sadly, it was nipped in the bud.
THAT SADAT’S murder abruptly ended this honeymoon needs no reminder.
What should be mentioned – if Abbas really wants to understand why we demand of him what we didn’t demand of Sadat – is the emergence of the cold peace that no one here foresaw, and the war on Israel’s legitimacy, which followed it.
It was a scenario Israeli diplomacy failed to predict, but now there is enough perspective to assess its damage.
As it was, soon after Sadat’s departure Egypt embarked on a policy of eating the cake and having it. On the one hand, it did not cancel or violate the peace agreement, but on the other, it allowed its media, academia, literati, diplomats and business community to join, and often inspire, and in some cases actually lead the effort to defame Israel.
The effort to delegitimize Israel in international institutions, in the media, in the arts, in trade and in academia is now famous, and most Israelis, regardless of political stripe, consider it a lethal threat to their country’s survival.
We, Mr. Abbas, face an international coalition of hypocrites bent on libeling, disempowering and ultimately chasing us from our land so we can return to be what they so much miss – the Wandering Jew.
Brits boycotting our professors, while ignoring the entire Arab world’s lack of free academia, are not driven by concern for you, but by hatred for us; Norwegians fending off Israeli submarines of “occupation” while ignoring, for instance, their Russian neighbor’s occupation of Japan’s Kuril Islands are not driven by disagreement with Israel’s policies, but with its existence; Turks scolding us for defending ourselves in Gaza while ignoring their own government’s occupation of northern Cyprus are not out to free Arabs but to humiliate Israelis; and Frenchmen (if that’s what they are) clearing Israeli products from Parisian supermarket shelves, without asking how come Israel has so much to place on those shelves and the Arab world so little, don’t care for Arab justice, only for Jewish dishonor.
Collectively, these and the rest of our partial detractors make us feel like medieval rabbis who were cornered into disputations that were ostensibly aimed at exploring truth, but in fact were designed to humiliate the Jews. Facing the intensity, disingenuousness and nefariousness of all this, we realize that what was once a religious offensive on our right to our faith, and then became a fascist attack on our right to our lives, has now returned as an international assault on our right to our land.
The way things have transpired over the past three decades, Israel cannot afford another ambiguous deal that dilutes, deforms and ultimately makes a travesty of the very term “peace.”
From our viewpoint, a peace deal with you will have to be such that every Arab caricaturist, European playwright, Californian historian and Bostonian linguist will realize that the Arab-Israeli conflict has ended, and that the morning after it, Israel-bashers will be condemned as anti-Semites.
Now you must be asking yourself why any of this should be any of your business.
Why should you bear the cross of Israel’s re-legitimization? Well Mr. President, the perplexing fact is that the national movement you head is the one which built this cross and nailed us to it, when it flatly rejected the UN’s decision in 1947 to establish here two states: one, as it put it, “Arab,” the other “Jewish.”
All we ask of you is to endorse now what your predecessors so rudely, blindly and fatefully rejected then. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, we had all better take a step back and focus on fostering more cooperation and respect between us, but otherwise wait another generation, or more, for real peace to arrive.