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Arab culture could prevent two-state compromise

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In a Feb. 11 National Post opinion piece headlined “The peace paradox,” Clifford May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies wrote about his meeting with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. May argued that Fayyad is the sort of moderate, pragmatic Palestinian leader with whom Israelis could reach an agreement if they could negotiate with him and if Fayyad “could deliver a majority of Palestinians willing to accept a compromise solution to the conflict.”

May put the chance of achieving such a deal with Fayyad at “[r]oughly zero to none,” but he attributed that mostly to constraints related to Fayyad’s unelected and unrepresentative status among the Palestinian people and the PLO. May also noted that Fayyad acknowledged that with the Palestinians split between the West Bank under Fatah and Gaza under Hamas, talk of peace is all the more remote – especially given Hamas’ declared threat to destroy Israel.

What May did not mention is what’s arguably central to the failure of all previous peace-making efforts (including Camp David in 2000 and Annapolis in 2008): the refusal of the Palestinian leadership “to accept a compromise solution.”

Indeed, it’s strange that May should have even felt the need to refer to a “compromise solution” as if to imply that there’s any other type. After all, peace talks (and negotiations in general) depend upon both sides being able and willing to compromise. So it’s redundant to even use the word “compromise” in this context. Or at least it should be.

Yet, the word seems to be increasingly cropping up these days in the very context of Israel-Palestinian peace-making. To cite just one other example, in a Jan. 31 American Interest blog entry (“Peace Process Sputters at the Starting Line”), Walter Russell Mead reflected on Hamas’ firm denial of a report in the Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Sharq that Hamas leader Khaled Meshal was prepared to endorse a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. (Although this received a fair amount of attention, it’s not the first time such a claim has been made about Hamas.)

The denial led to further discord between Fatah and Hamas, giving Mead pause to write: “And so we’re back to square one.” But he also used the occasion to make the following observation about Israel: “The substantial majority of Israelis who want a two-state solution (with some caveats) don’t have much of an agenda to push in the absence of a strong Palestinian partner who is both willing to accept and able to deliver a compromise peace” (emphasis added).

Again, is there any other form of peace than one based on compromise? So why the need here, as in the May piece, to mention it?

It’s not sloppy writing that leads to such an obvious redundancy. There must be something else at issue. And, arguably, it’s that the concept of compromise appears exceptional not only for Palestinian politics, but for Arab political culture more generally.

Mark Lavie, a veteran foreign correspondent currently based in Egypt, reflected on the importance of this phenomenon in a December dispatch from Cairo. Compromise, Lavie wrote, “is the key ingredient of democracy. Yet the lack of the ability to compromise is evident all around us here in Egypt. It has kept the diverse and squabbling opposition groups from uniting. And in the current crisis, it has made it impossible to negotiate.”

Other observers, such as former Canadian ambassador Michael Bell, have offered similar thoughts. Indeed this column cited Bell last December when, in a Globe and Mail opinion column about the political crisis in Egypt, he pointed to “long-held political and social traditions, where the art of political compromise remains rudimentary, if not alien, to the majority.”

Lavie went one step further, however, noting that there “is no word for ‘compromise’ in Arabic.”

This is not to say that compromise as it’s understood in the West is impossible in the Arab world, rather, that it’s very difficult – something that’s not lost on Israelis themselves.

Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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