Mahmoud Abbas Holds the Key to Peace

We don’t need the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but we do need to hear them say - publicly - that they accept us.

Shlomo Avineri
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I’m not sure whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was right to once again place the issue of Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish nation-state in the center of political discourse. It is possible that people are right who say that Netanyahu’s purpose was to make the negotiations even more difficult. But we must remember that it was Tzipi Livni who first raised the issue, as far back as 2000 and later at the 2007 Annapolis Conference. Netanyahu has no copyright on this idea, and whereas Livni does not view this recognition as a precondition to negotiations, she clearly considers it an essential component of any future peace agreement.

I was not enthusiastic about the idea at the time and I still think it is misguided, first and foremost because it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the issue of recognition. Political or diplomatic recognition is reserved for states, not organizations. Only a state can recognize – or not recognize – another state. And so people who say that the PLO – or the Palestinian Authority, which is not a state – is not authorized by international law to give recognition to the State of Israel are right, as are those who say that we do not follow the dictates of PLO or the PA.

Moreover, even when one state recognizes another it does not imply recognition of its political structure: When, after many years, the United States in 1933 formally recognized the Soviet Union, it was recognition simply as a state, not as a communist or Marxist state; and when most of the world’s democracies recognized Israel after its establishment, that too was as a state and nothing more, and that was doubtless sufficient.

But the issue is more complicated. The Palestinian leadership, from President Mahmoud Abbas to chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, vehemently rejected the Israeli demand. The Palestinian rejection indeed touches on the root of the conflict, which the Palestinians prefer to present as being solely about Israel’s control over the territories occupied in 1967 and are unwilling to deal with its deeper aspects.

After all, it is a fact that in 1947-48 the Palestinians rejected the UN partition plan and went to war. Against whom? Was it Patagonia? Antarctica? They rejected a resolution granting international legitimacy to the establishment of a Jewish state in part of Palestine and went to war against the Jewish state and its very establishment. To this day not one word of internal criticism has been heard within the Palestinian camp about this decision. Would it be too much for the Israelis to expect that the Palestinians make clear that as part of the peace process and the end of the conflict they now accept the Jewish nation-state against which they went to war in 1948?

As noted, I do not believe that this should be included in the peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but one could entertain a different scenario.

The Palestinian leadership must be aware of the deep skepticism in Israel over its genuine readiness to end the conflict, especially in light of the fact that in the Palestinian discourse the Jews are not considered a nation but a religious community only. When Abbas says, at a conference in Ramallah, that the Palestinian leadership cannot relinquish the right of return for Palestinian refugees because it is “an individual decision,” it only intensifies Israeli skepticism.

Let’s imagine what would happen if Abbas decided to appear on Israeli television issuing the following simple statement: “We have deep disagreements, but I wish to tell the Israeli public that after decades of being unwilling to accept you, we are willing to accept you and your state.” Egyptian President Anwar Sadat used similar words in his historic speech to the Knesset and he was embraced by Israelis because they understood the message.

There is no need for diplomatic recognition, but there is a need for those who rejected us to approach the people of Israel directly and persuade us that they are now willing to accept us. There is no need for diplomatic formulations or sophisticated verbiage. Just simple, unambiguous words.

Undoubtedly such a statement would change the discourse in Israel. Of course it would not persuade those who believe in the Greater Land of Israel. But it would have a far-reaching impact on Israelis in the center of the political map: Opinion polls have for years said they would agree to a two-state solution, but they have (justified) doubts that the Palestinians are truly ready for it.

The justified opposition of the Israeli left to the perpetuation of the delusional settlement enterprise in the territories should not blind us to seeing that the lack of progress in the negotiations is largely the result of a lack of Palestinian willingness to state in no uncertain terms that the reason they went to war in 1947-48 no longer exists.

That is no simple challenge for the Palestinian national movement. But as in 1947-48, today, too, the Palestinians hold the key. Then they went to war, which brought them catastrophe. Now they can choose real reconciliation between the two national movements gripping this land. The Netanyahu government’s erroneous settlement policy must not obscure this basic fact.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo, November 11, 2013.Credit: Reuters