It must be hard to be Condoleezza Rice. Being the umpteenth envoy assigned to bang your head against the wall called “Mideast peace” is hardly enviable. Each trip, she must hold up the flimsiest straw — last week, the fact of a meeting — and call it progress.
One wonders if she and other top diplomats who, with great sincerity, dedicate themselves to this thankless task, ever consider that they may be on the wrong track. Not regarding the goal of peace, or even the two-state vision, but with respect to the underlying paradigm on which all such diplomacy is based.
Rice is operating on a straightforward assumption: Palestinians are not embracing peace because they don’t believe it is possible, or that it is attractive enough. The West’s task, then, is to draw with increasingly vivid colors the “political horizon” that is the Palestinians’ for the asking.
From Rice’s point of view, the situation must seem quite absurd. She must ask herself, don’t the Palestinians realize that if they just stop “struggling” they can have the state they are struggling for? Perhaps she wonders: why don’t Israelis see that, if they just put their cards on the table, the Palestinians are exhausted and ready for a deal?
The assumption is that both sides want the same thing, yet are too hampered by historical baggage to take the other side’s yes for an answer. But what if this assumption is wrong?
This reigning hypothesis is unconsciously based on a misunderstanding of the Arab side. As hard as it is for us to comprehend, we must accept that in the Arab mind, peace with Israel — far from success — still represents capitulation, humiliation and defeat.
Since the 1967 war, which ended with U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 establishing “land for peace” as the paradigm for ending the conflict, the West has assumed that the Arab world in fact favors such a deal. We tend to forget that in 1967, the Arab states were about to invade and destroy Israel, which at that time did not control a single grain of the West Bank, Gaza, and even east Jerusalem.
Resolution 242 essentially said to the Arabs, “you wanted to destroy Israel, you lost, so now make peace and be happy you are getting the land you just lost back.” Though the Arabs were defeated and weak, they said no.
Now, Israel is militarily and economically much stronger than it was in 1967. Even diplomatically, just about all the countries that broke relations with Israel during the 1973 Arab oil boycott have restored ties. The U.N.’s “Zionism is racism” resolution, passed in 1975, was revoked in 1991.
Given this strength, it is not crazy for the West to keep trying the waters, hoping that the Arab world is ready to give up its century-old refusal to accept any Jewish state, however minuscule. What makes no sense is to forget that the Arab-Israeli peace that is a shining prize in Western eyes would be a source of shame and mourning for much of the Muslim world.
A poll taken a few months ago in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and United Arab Emirates — all considered moderate Arab states — found that the most admired leaders there were, in order of popularity: Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, French President Jacques Chirac, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In 2004, when people in these same countries were asked why the US had invaded Iraq, the answers were perhaps even more revealing. “Controlling oil” and “protecting Israel” were cited by a large majorities, with “desire to dominate the region” and “weakening the Muslim world” named by slightly smaller majorities.
In Western eyes, peace is so obviously desirable that the idea that it could be seen negatively is rarely considered. But try, for a moment, to look at the situation through Arab eyes. Peace would be the ultimate ratification of Israel’s existence. It would be seen as an abject surrender to the West’s bid to dominate the Arabs.
In October 1995, when Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister and Oslo was in its heyday, Nizar Qabbani, the most popular poet in the Arab world, mourned the accords thus: “In our hands they left / a sardine can called Gaza / and a dry bone called Jericho / …they gave us a homeland smaller than a single grain of wheat / a homeland to swallow without water like aspirin pills…”
Today, Hamas leaders openly say that their dreams of Israel’s destruction are closer to fruition than any time since 1967. They see the struggle as not only, or even primarily, one of military strength, but of legitimacy. And if it is suddenly and increasingly more legitimate to speak of a world without Israel, why should the Arabs, at this very moment, throw in the towel?
In this context, what we think of as a “political horizon” designed to tempt Arabs has the opposite effect. How does dressing up defeat make it more tempting?
Unfortunately, there is no direct way to change the fact that, to the bulk of Arab opinion, peace equals capitulation. All that can be done is to tip the scales of inevitability: from a world where it seems that Israel can be waited out, to one in which Israel is not only growing in strength but in legitimacy.
It may be counterintuitive, but the Palestinians’ many allies who think they are promoting peace by vilifying Israel are doing the opposite. The same goes for Western governments who assume that “evenhandedness” advances peace.
The most pro-peace policy is the one that most convinces the Arabs of Israel’s permanence. Even the U.S. is far from such a policy, since it will not routinely reject the currently favored backdoor means to Israel’s destruction, the Palestinian demand for a “right of return” to Israel.
When it comes to a “political horizon,” the problem is not that the Arabs cannot see a Palestinian state, but that they can see a Jewish one. The Arab world will settle for a Palestinian state only when it is convinced of the permanence of Israel.
— Saul Singer is editorial page editor of the Jerusalem Post and author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel’s Struggle & the World After 9/11. This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post and is reprinted here with permission.