I was struck by the following quotation of Abba Eban, Israel's first Foreign Minister, quoted by Adi Schwartz
"Nobody does Israel any service by proclaiming its 'right to exist'," wrote Abba Eban in a November 1981 article in The New York Times. "Israel's right to exist, like that of the United States, Saudi Arabia and 152 other states, is axiomatic and unreserved. Israel's legitimacy is not suspended in midair, awaiting acknowledgement by the Saudi royal house. Nor does the Palestine Liberation Organization have the legal status to grant recognition to any country, or to deny it recognition."
The article by the former foreign minister, one of Israel's most impressive spokesmen in the international arena, was written in response to the plan by Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, who proposed an implicit recognition of Israel's right to exist as part of an initiative to end the Israeli-Arab conflict. "There is certainly no other state," wrote Eban, "big or small, young or old, that would consider mere recognition of its 'right to exist' a favor, or a negotiable concession."
Israel's right to exist should indeed be self-evident. I have always thought this peculiar about the 'land for peace' concept (which I otherwise support in principle): Israel gives up the occupied territories in return for recognition and peace. Many, not just Arabs, feel that Israel only has a right to exist when there is also a Palestinian state. Recognition is something that Israel has to earn with good behavior, by making sufficient concessions, and peace apparently is something it then, perhaps, may get in return. I am in favor of peace for peace: in a peace treaty between Israel and the Arab states both parties promise to recognize the other, not to attack it, and to engage in peaceful relations. Giving back conquered territories is a part of that, like finding a solution to the refugee problem or Jerusalem. It goes without saying that one does not call for the destruction of the other side, or blame it for all the problems of the region including illnesses and natural disasters. Recognition and compensation for the Jewish refugees from Arab countries is also a requirement.
The land for peace principle dates from before the occupation of 1967. In the 1950's the USA and Great Britain promoted the idea that Israel should give part of the Negev desert to Egypt in return for a promise of non-belligerency. Egypt, it was believed, could not sign a treaty with Israel without 'getting something in return'. In their view, Israel needed nothing in return from Egypt, aside from the promise not to be attacked. Israel rejected this proposal, of course, but so did Egypt, and thus the plan was aborted. Jordan also suggested a peace proposal at that time, in exchange for a corridor to the Mediterranean Sea.
So peace has always been something that Israel needed to 'buy' with land, and sometimes the offer was not even peace but the mere promise not to attack. Likewise the Hamas now proposes not to attack Israel temporarily, in exchange for the occupied territories including East-Jerusalem. How generous! The Arab states always like to point to Israeli aggression; however, if Israel is indeed that aggressive, then isn't it worth something to them to get a promise that Israel won't attack them, in exchange for Arab concessions? How about trade (ending the boycott), compensation for the Jewish refugees, ending the support of Palestinian terrorist groups, support for sanctions against Iran, ending Israel's isolation in the UN, etc. etc. In short, there is enough Arab states can offer Israel in exchange for a non-aggression pact.
Friends of the Palestinian cause claim that peace is only possible from a position of power balance. There is none according to them, as Israel occupies the Palestinian territories and has one of the most powerful armies of the world. If the Palestinians indeed are in such a poor position, then why won't they accept a two state solution with a compromise on the refugee issue? Why did most of them vote for a party which time and again proclaimed that it does not want peace with Israel, but rather to keep on fighting it until all of Palestine is liberated? Even the presumably moderate Machmoud Abbas does not refrain from pugnacious rhetoric. In a speech during Fatah's birthday celebrations he proclaimed:
"Since our launching to this day, we have believed in principles which we shall not relinquish. From the dawn of our beginning we have said 'Let a thousand flowers bloom and let our rifles, all our rifles, all our rifles, be aimed at the Occupation.' And we will keep the oath, the renewed national unity, for everyone who cares for the sake of the homeland and in the path of the homeland,"
"Today more than any other day, we must hold fast to our Palestinian principles, and we will not accept a state with temporary borders" said Abbas, adding, "We will not give up one grain [of land] in Jerusalem."
"No one [here] is a criminal. All our people are as one hand to free our land," declared Abbas, speaking about the struggle against Israel that unites all Palestinians. Not once in his speech did he condemn or even disapprove of continuing rocket attacks and attempted suicide assaults by Hamas and by his own Fatah movement."
These are not the words of a loser, of a leader of a people that is forced by its parlous state to take a conciliatory and mild stance and accept compromise. Sympathizers of the Palestinians may say that this has to do with the dignity and pride of the Palestinians, who will not succumb to the Israelis with their superior tanks and F16s. I would rather say that it has to do with the fact that Abbas feels supported by the USA and other Western countries and the moderate Arab states, and primarily needs to show to his own people that he is not a meek sheep whose strings are pulled by the West or Israel. He is not likely to lose support of the West, as there is no reasonable alternative to him available. On the other hand he does need to win over the Palestinian people from Hamas.
The wide international support for a Palestinian state and for the idea that Israel needs to earn its recognition by making such a state possible, allows Abbas to venture such bellicose speeches. If Ehud Olmert were to say in a speech that Israel should not relinquish one inch of holy ground in Jerusalem, and that the settlers need to join forces with the 'doves' to exterminate terrorism, and would praise Israeli 'martyrs' like Baruch Goldstein, the world would be enraged. 'Israel on the warpath', 'right extreme rhetoric by Olmert', etc. the headlines would say, and the US would demand an explanation from the Israeli ambassador. The EU would not hide its outrage either, and of course Olmert would be fiercely criticized within Israel itself. The US did call Israel to order for much less, namely the planned building of 30 houses in a Jordan Valley settlement for ex-settlers from the Gaza Strip, which has been cancelled, probably because of US pressure.
Power consists not only of tanks and F16s, although those come in handy. Power consists of allies, of adoption of your narrative by others, of a mighty block of countries that cannot be ignored, for example because they have underground resources that keep our economies running. This was the case in the 1930s, when the British rulers of Palestine proposed to give the Jews a mini state of 15% of the mandate, in the 1950s, when it was proposed that Israel cede land for peace or non-belligerency with its neighbors, in 1974 when the PLO was granted observer status in the UN without any conditions, and Arafat made a bellicose speech with a pistol visible in his back pocket (while Israel was accepted in 1949 only on the condition that it would make every effort to make peace with its neighbors), and it was the case with the Zionism-is-racism resolution of 1975. It is still the case today when the US accepted Hamas' participation in the elections (a violation of the Oslo accords), and the right of the Jews to self-determination is made conditional on the establishment of a Palestinian state and other concessions, despite the fact that the Palestinians also are to blame for the failure to establish their state.
No other people gets so much money from the international community; the UN has a separate organization for the Palestinian refugees alone (UNRWA), which has a unique guideline to give refugee status to all descendants of the refugees. For no other people has the UN erected specific committees and a separate secretariat department (see The Question of Palestine), that campaign against a UN member state with millions of dollars of international donor money.
It is no wonder the Palestinians feel strong enough to express themselves in such firm language, to put high demands on Israel, to daily violate a ceasefire. No wonder the Arab states demand a complete withdrawal from the occupied territories in return for a vague promise of recognition, not of Israel as a Jewish state, but of Israel as a state that exists, and that is required to absorb a substantial number of the Palestinian refugees, while denying any responsibility for the approximately 800,000 Jewish refugees from Arab states.
In the past, Israel often profited from Arab mistakes and miscalculations, both in wars and in negotiations. If the Palestinians would manage to stop their violence against Israel for a period, Israel would be highly pressured to accept an unfavorable deal in which it would be required to make substantial and risky concessions in return for a vague paper recognition.
I am in favor of negotiations that lead to a Palestinian state and peace between Israel and the Arab world. However, I don't believe that the Arab world at this time is ready for peace with a strong and prosperous Israel; this would be considered a humiliation. And so I am rather ambiguous about peace negotiations without asking for some commitment from the Arab states first, for instance by treating Israel as a normal, recognized state for some years, a state not held responsible for all misery on earth, a state that is allowed full membership of all UN institutions like any other state, a state against which they do not sponsor and incite violence. After a few years of normalized relations there can be talks of peace and of a Palestinian state. Or, to put it differently, the Arab states first need to prove that they have peace on offer before demanding such a high price for it.
Let's hope some people in the White House or in Brussels reach the same conclusion. And let's hope we find a way to drive cars without oil.
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Replies: 1 Comment
I posted this after someone responded to an article on holocaust denial and Iran, but after reading Ratna Pelleís fine article, I thought what I wrote was more relevant here. I hope you donít mind that I have reposted this and hope it will generate some comments and discussion. (If you have read this and discounted it, I apologize for repeating it.)
Almost sixty years after Israel became a state, people still challenge its legitimacy. There is an attitude common among Arabs (and others) that Jews are colonial occupiers who have no history and no rights in the region, and that this belief can partially explain why the peace process has failed. (Iím not foolish enough to argue it is the only reason or that there arenít Jewish attitudes also hindering peace efforts.)
I once thought peace didnít require Arabs and Jews to like each other; just that we stop killing each other. If the Palestinians sat down to negotiate with the Israelis not because they had come to see Jews as legitimate residents of the region but because they finally realized they wouldnít achieve their goals by force of arms, that was good enough. But now I think that as long as a significant portion of Arabs (maybe a majority maybe a large minority, I donít know) see Jews as colonizing outsiders, peace is unlikely. After all, the Belgiums left the Congo, the French left North Africa and Viet Nam, the sun finally set on the British Empire, and the Jews will leave Israel if just a few more are killed.
But of course the Jews havenít left Israel and will not. The rockets fired by Hezbollah and the suicide bombers sent by Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Fatah change nothing, can change nothing, only kill and main and bring more killing and maiming. While I believe the Palestinians have the right to their own country, their rockets and bombers are deeply immoral since they will not, cannot bring about the desired results. Arabs are as indigenous to the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean as I am to North America. I was born here, as were my parents and grandparents, but like the Arabs of Palestine, I am the beneficiary of violence and conquest, only the Arabs had the good fortune of conquering what is now Israel so long ago that memory has faded.
Time has allowed them to forget that someone else once lived on land they claim as their own; time has allowed them to appropriate stories they now call their own. The Palestinians may claim they descend from the Canaanites or the Moabites or the Philistines, and maybe they do, but they cannot tell a Canaanite creation story or a Philistine hero story. Those stories are as dead as dusty clay tablets stored in museum vaults. What the Arabs have are stories of Abraham and Isaac and Ishmael and Moses and David. What the Arabs have are Jewish stories.
The Palestinians can deny a Jewish presence in their land, but without the Torah and the Tanak, their ancient stories would vanish. Many people who claim Israel has no right to exist will also claim that a bunch of ancient myths doesnít give Jews a right to a state of our own. When I hear that argument, I wonder what gives the Palestinians the right to the land. Is it simple occupation. To claim possession by simple occupation is to validate Jewish existence in Israel, since itís primarily Jews living there now, and most of the Jews in Israel were born on that land.
The villages and fields the Palestinians once called home are mostly gone, and while a few former residents hang on in Lebanon and Jordan and Syria and the rest of the Arab world, the years are against them. Nineteen forty-eight was a long time ago. One day soon, nobody with a personal knowledge of Palestine will exist. Already, most of the people who hold keys to long-vanished houses and tell stories of long-vanished villages know of these things only second or third hand or fourth hand. Already, their stories sound more like ancient myth than something we would call history, and in time myth will be all the Palestinians have.
We Jews like to say ďTorah is truth,Ē but to spend time trying to read Torah as history that can be proved or disproved is to miss its real truth. And the truth of the Torah gives Jews a right to Israel even if it is just myth in the same way the Palestiniansí stories give them a right to a state. To delegitimize Torah and Tanak is to ultimately delegitimize the Palestiniansí claim to a home of their own.
If the Palestinians and other Arabs can finally see what is true in the Jewish narrative, I think it will go along way to brining peace to a region so desperately in need of peace. Both sides need to understand the validity of the others claims. Both sides need to compromise, but also understanding that in compromising, the other side is giving up something they are entitled to in exchange for peace. Those who continually deny Israelís right to exist cannot do this, and every sentence, every word will only serve to deepen and prolong the conflict.
mike, Tuesday, January 30th
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