Tuesday, 30 July 2013

What is Israel asking of the Arab world?

The answer is: Not much more than the Arab world is prepared to give.

Thanks to the unremitting efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry, the first tentative steps towards a resumption of the Israel-Palestine peace process took place on Monday, July 29 2013, when Israeli and Palestinian representatives sat down together in Washington to talk about talks. That matters have reached this stage is due, without any doubt, to Kerry’s dogged persistence, to his refusal to be discouraged by the dauntingly difficult task of bridging the gap between Israeli and Palestinian aspirations, and to his unquestionable diplomatic skills.

The ultimate objective to which both parties are signed up is the so-called “two-state solution” – an outcome, underwritten by the UN, the EU, and the Quartet, which is anathema alike to Islamist fundamentalists like Hamas, the de facto government of the Gaza strip, and to right-wing politicians and media commentators in Israel.

For the former, the concept of a sovereign Palestine living alongside a sovereign Israel is totally unacceptable. They regard the whole area “from the river to the sea” (ie from the Jordan to the Mediterranean) as Arab territory to which Israel has no right. Their aim is to eradicate Israel from the Middle East altogether and, as is the case in several Muslim states, to ensure that no Jews remain in the area. “Judenrein”, with its chilling Nazi connotations, is entirely apt to describe their purpose. Indeed, the connection between earlier Islamist leaders and the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s, and their common stance on the “Final Solution”, is well documented. All that can be expected from Islamist fundamentalists, their eyes set on restoring the Caliphate and eventually subjecting the whole world to Sharia law, is constant opposition to Israel’s presence, manifested by periodical resort to “armed struggle” waged indiscriminately on civilians in, and sometimes outside, Israel.

For their part, the Israeli right-wing regard as legally flawed the contention of the UN, the EU and the Quartet that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal. They contend that the international agreements under which the whole of Mandate Palestine was designated as the area in which Jewish settlement was to be encouraged have never been abrogated, but were indeed reinforced by the UN Charter. There is therefore no legal foundation for banning Jewish families from choosing to live in the ancient heartland of Judea and Samaria. Additionally, they maintain, the fourth Geneva Convention, the basis for declaring that West Bank settlements are illegal, has been misinterpreted, since no mass transfer of civilian populations into the area has occurred. Moreover, the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank would impose an unacceptable security risk on Israel, which would be reduced to a width of only about 15 kilometres at its narrowest, and which could provide a future militant Palestinian administration with a base from which to attack Tel Aviv, other major population centres and Ben Gurion airport with ease.

Despite the extremist arguments on both sides, the representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have signed up to the two-state solution as the ultimate objective of the current bid for an agreement. For the PA, a successful outcome would result in the establishment of an internationally welcomed sovereign state of Palestine within legally defined borders. To be realistic, however, for many, if not most, on the Palestinian side, this would represent only a stepping-stone towards the ultimate dream of an Israel-free Middle East – an aspiration lodged deep in the founding charter of Fatah, the leading party within the PA.

In effect, it is this unrealistic illusion that Israel is asking the Arab world in general, and the PA in particular, to abandon. Israel is saying: “We are here to stay. Acknowledge the fact. The Jews have returned to their ancient homeland. Israel is the national home of the Jewish people. But it is a democratic state with freedom of religion and equal rights for all its citizens, Jewish or not, enshrined in its Declaration of Independence.” Asking the Arab world to accept this is not asking the impossible, but the task is akin to bringing a vast oil tanker, proceeding steadily on its way, to a shuddering halt, and hauling it round to go forward in a new direction. It can be done, but it would take a determined effort.

There is no doubt that an intense Judeophobia is lodged deep within Islam (not reciprocated, incidentally, within Judaism in respect of Islam). It is akin to the endemic anti-Semitism that has characterised much of Christianity for most of its two thousand year existence. Strenuous efforts in the past few decades by the Catholic church, initiated by Pope John Paul II, have done much to effect a change of attitude in that branch of Christianity. Much remains to be done, both within Catholicism and within the wider Christian world, but a start has been made.

Within the Muslim world there is little evidence of a change of attitude. Rabid anti-Jewish propaganda emanates from many of the politicians and the media outlets in Muslim countries, and children are imbued with anti-Jewish sentiment in the schoolroom. Any sort of Jewish connection to the Holy Land in general or Jerusalem in particular is denied – though a simple glance into the Old Testament should be enough to counter such illusory assertions. And yet, it is an undeniable historical fact that in many places, and for many centuries, Muslim and Jew lived peaceably side by side. What has happened can again come to pass – the precedent is there.

What Israel asks of the Arab world is a radical change of attitude. It is strange, but true, that just such a change of attitude is actually on offer, originally only from the representatives of the 22 Arab states that surround Israel, but subsequently widened to include all 57 Muslim nations worldwide. The Arab Peace Initiative, announced by the Arab League in 2002 and readopted several times since, offers Israel an end to the Arab–Israeli conflict, a peace agreement and the establishment of “normal relations”, ie mutual diplomatic representation, and open trade and cultural relations. Despite the original requirements written into the Initiative, already modified at the instigation of John Kerry. In practical terms and in current circumstances the quid pro quo for this highly desirable state of affairs is simply for a mutually acceptable peace agreement to be signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Over to you John Kerry, Martin Indyk – newly appointed US Middle East special envoy – and the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators assembled in Washington.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 30 July 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 July 2013:

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