Since roughly 1967, the West has seen solving the Palestinian problem as the key to peace and stability in this region.
The war in Iraq was partly an implicit admission that this paradigm has failed and is in need of reversal: The road to peace lay through defeating Arab radicalism, therefore it ran through Baghdad. It would seem natural, then, that post-Saddam U.S. diplomacy would beginning with the welcoming of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as Palestinian Authority prime minister and the presentation of the Quartet’s road map to the arties.
So why are the Palestinians and Europe happy, while Israel seems worried and nervous? Why does Israel seem to feel threatened when a major strategic enemy has been wiped out and there is a fresh opportunity to pursue peace?
For those trained to believe that Israeli land-hunger is the perennial obstacle to peace, jitters in Jerusalem make perfect sense. But this standard picture of Israel avoiding and the Palestinians pursuing a land-for-peace deal is a misreading of the situation.
Think of it this way. Let’s say the heart of a deal is statehood for peace.
When Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands at Oslo’s signing on the White House lawn a decade ago, the idea of Palestinian statehood was not only an anathema to Israelis, but had just a few years before been ruled out by U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz.
Over the following decade, on the Israeli side, the prospect of a Palestinian state went through a sea change from an unutterable taboo to something approaching a consensus. Remarkably, this consensus has remained largely intact despite the collapse of the 2000 Camp David summit and the brutal terrorism of the past 30 months.
In 1993, if an independent Palestine was unthinkable for Israelis, peace with Israel was, despite the rhetoric of Oslo, unthinkable for the Palestinians. Before Oslo, the PLO was formally dedicated to destroying Israel, and keys — a potent and ubiquitous symbol of the homes Palestinian refugees left in Israel — encapsulated the ethos of the “right of return.” Oslo was built on the theory that while Israelis got used to the idea of a Palestinian state, Palestinians would part with the idea that they could return to Israel (most Palestinians have never lived in Israel).
No one thought this would be easy. When Oslo was signed the right of return more accurately described as the demand of displacement was as unacceptable to Israelis across the political spectrum as it was axiomatic to
Oslo’s fundamental failure was that the Israeli evolution toward the Palestinian position was not reciprocated. Throughout the past decade, even in Oslo’s heyday, there was no Palestinian effort to prepare themselves to limit their demands to their own state and abandon the idea of moving into Israel.
Keys remain a potent symbol of Palestinian propaganda and mythology to this day. Having built up the notion of return, there is no way it can be turned off in an instant, and there is little indication that Abu Mazen, let alone Arafat, is prepared to try.
Further, if the shooting stopped tomorrow, we would not be back to the square one of 1993, or of 2000, but to a situation more difficult than when Oslo was signed. For the last 30 months, the Palestinians have been glorifying terrorism on an almost hourly basis.
It is a measure of how deeply the ethos of “martyrdom” has penetrated that even Abu Mazen’s speech, hailed for its moderation, was permeated with it.
Much attention was paid to Abu Mazen’s denouncing of “terrorism by any party and in all its shapes and forms both because of our religious and moral traditions and because such methods do not lend support to a just cause like ours, but rather destroy it.” But Arab states routinely distinguish between
terror, which they are against, and attacking Israelis, which is called “armed resistance.”
In almost the same breath as Abu Mazen condemned terror, he praised the “courageous uprising against Israel’s aggression” and claimed that Palestinians had “fought with honor.” How would a Palestinian learn from this that suicide bombings or shooting children in their beds is wrong rather heroic? Why didn’t Abu Mazen simply condemn suicide bombings, which would have gone far to remove this ambiguity?
If Abu Mazen is unable to speak clearly against terrorism it is hard to see how he can act clearly against it.
At the same time as Israelis were drumming into themselves that there are no military solutions and that a Palestinian state was not only safe, but necessary to preserve Israel as a democratic and Jewish state, the Palestinians have compounded the myth of return with the god of martyrdom. How are the Palestinians to deprogram themselves of ideas that are incompatible with peace? Hard to say. But we do know the task can’t be done until it is begun. And once begun, its seems naive to believe it can happen
The conclusion is that the Palestinians have a lot of catching up to do to reach the point where they can really accept that the Jewish people has a right to national self-determination in this land. There is not much Israel can do to hasten this process, except to block all the alternatives. The fall of Saddam Hussein was a massive psychological shock in the right direction.
The fall of Arafat, whenever it happens, will be another. At this point, until further notice, fighting terror and its sponsors is the greatest educational tool, and therefore the most effective peace process.
— Saul Singer is editorial-page editor of the Jerusalem Post. This piece originally appeared in the Post and is reprinted with permission.