Last week, while Israel was in the process of forming a new government and the Vatican was deliberating over the choice of a new pope, some media attention turned to U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel, which was scheduled to begin March 20.
Journalists reported about the low level of expectation that the U.S. administration was signalling for Obama’s first visit as president. Obama would not introduce a new peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians, but rather would be coming to listen to both sides and also to discuss urgent issues such as how to deal with Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons. He might even leave Israel early, some speculated, to attend the investiture for the new Pope.
In a March 13 New York Times column, “Mr. Obama goes to Israel,” Thomas Friedman put Obama’s visit in perspective. “The most destabilizing conflict in the region is the civil war between Shiites and Sunnis that is rocking Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen. While it would be a good thing to erect a Palestinian state at peace with Israel, the issue today is will there be anymore a Syrian state, a Libyan state and an Egyptian state,” he wrote.
Still, the familiar refrain about linkage involving Israel and the wider region figured in Friedman’s analysis: “[T]he unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict emotionally resonates across the Arab-Muslim world,” although solving it is necessary, but not sufficient “for regional stability,” he said. Too many pundits have claimed, almost as a matter of course, without any evidence at all, that resolving this conflict is both necessary and sufficient. At least Friedman introduces a bit more realism into the picture in light of regional developments that have nothing to do with Israel and the Palestinians.
However, it might also be argued that the emotionalism Friedman refers to would not be dissipated by a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, because the parties feeding most off anti-Israel passions don’t want to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict solved, they want to see Israel disappear. This of course means that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not even be a necessary condition for “regional stability” since Israel, within any boundaries as the Jewish State, would remain an unacceptable provocation. That’s the view of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. – that is, in general, of both Shia and Sunni Islamists. In the meantime, Israel remains a useful cause for recruiting terrorists.
Other parties, mainly Arab secular autocrats, have been quite content for decades to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continue, as it conveniently serves to distract attention from their own domestic failures.
This is not to say that an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is not vital. It is, but it’s for the benefit of both Israelis and Palestinians themselves.
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When asked by Patrick Martin of the Globe and Mail (March 11) whether he thought it important for Hamas to accept Israel as a Jewish state (the same could have been asked of Fatah), former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon replied: “No. It is for me to decide on the identity of my state. I’m not going to demand that their future state of Palestine be a democracy.”
Ayalon drew the wrong analogy. The issue of identity here concerns peoplehood, not the form of government. The vast majority of Israelis have for many years acknowledged the right of the Palestinian people to statehood, whereas the Palestinians still refuse to acknowledge the same for the Jewish People. This constitutes the wide “peace gap” between the sides. To close the gap recent Israeli governments have emphasized the need to recognize “two states for two peoples,” as the United Nations itself envisioned in 1947. It’s not sufficient for some Palestinians to say they recognize “Israel” but to then insist on the “return” of potentially millions of Palestinian “refugees” to that state, thereby creating another Arab-majority country.
If there’s linkage that really matters, it’s to be found in genuine mutual recognition.
Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.