Jun 23rd 2009

Netanyahu’s Useless Demand

by Abraham B. Yehoshua

A. B. Yehoshua is one of Israel's pre-eminent novelists. His latest novel is Friendly Fire.

HAIFA - Ever since the Six Day War of June 1967, a small number of Israelis, not all on the left, supported the idea of two states as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most of their compatriots rejected it, as did the Palestinians. Israelis justified their stance with this question: Just when did the Palestinians become a nation deserving of statehood? The Palestinians were asking in return: Why should the Jews, a religious community dispersed around the world, have their own state?

A lot of water had to pass under the bridge before the idea of a two-state solution, whether as a moral or a practical matter, began to filter into the Israeli and Palestinian political and ideological environments. People gradually became accustomed to the expression "Palestinian state," and those who embraced it received support and gained prestige on the international scene.

After the Labor leaders Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ehud Barak embraced the two-state concept, there came the first tentative movements in that direction from Likud members: Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, and Ariel Sharon. Now, from the very bastion of the right, came Benjamin Netanyahu. We can congratulate ourselves: better late than never!

We are all aware that the road toward the realization of this dream is full of obstacles and difficulties, both on the Israeli and the Palestinian side. I believe that some of the preconditions posed by the Israeli prime minister in his recent, widely reported speech are fully justified. Others, however, are useless and only complicate further an already complex and problematic situation.

Netanyahu's demand that the future Palestinian state be demilitarized is just, reasonable, and necessary. One look at a map is enough to understand this. Even Egypt, a great and sovereign nation, accepted demilitarization of Sinai as a part of its peace process with Israel. Indeed, demilitarization of Sinai is one of the fundamental elements of the stability of Egypt's peace with Israel. Other great and independent countries, such as Japan, Germany, and Austria, have been subjected for decades to limitations on their acquisition of certain weapons and military equipment.

Similarly, the refusal of Palestinian refugees' claim to a right of return to Israel proper is understandable, logical, and just. What sense would it make to bring back millions of Palestinians into a state whose character and symbols are foreign to them - a state where the majority belongs to another ethnic group? Are they to go back to homes and farms that no longer exist?

These refugees could much more properly establish themselves in the new state of Palestine, their mother country, among their compatriots, under a Palestinian flag and Palestinian authority, merely 30 kilometers from the homes and farms that they abandoned, or from which they were expelled, more than 60 years ago.

But the other condition demanded by Netanyahu, that the Palestinians recognize the right of the Jewish people to their own state, or the existence of the Jewish nation, is completely arbitrary. In my opinion, it is superfluous to ask the Palestinians to recognize the nationhood of a people with thousands of years of history and a state that maintains diplomatic relations with 150 countries around the world.

A demand of this kind was not made of Egypt or Jordan when Israel signed peace agreements with those countries, and it constitutes an entirely useless obstacle on the road to peace with the Palestinians. It will be more than sufficient to ask the Palestinians to recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel, a state whose territorial boundaries and political identity are known to all. On our part, we also will be recognizing not so much the Palestinian people, which one day may merge with the people of Jordan, as an independent and sovereign Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

Framing the issue in this way makes sense for two reasons. First, the question of Jewish nationality is, in fact, very complicated, even for Jews themselves, as many consider themselves Jewish only in a religious sense.

Second, the Palestinians' refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is motivated by, among other things, the presence of a Palestinian minority in Israel. But relations between Israel's Jewish majority and Arab minority is an internal, delicate question in which it is not wise to involve Palestinians outside of Israel. For more than 60 years, the two groups have managed to live together in an acceptable manner, confronting with relative dignity the inferno of terrorism and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip. With the advent of peace, we all hope that this bond will become consolidated around a common Israeli citizenship.

There will be enough problems in negotiating the creation of a Palestinian state, so we should avoid adding other, gratuitous obstacles. Let's focus on resolving the most important of the problems - demilitarization, settlements, borders, and refugees - and allow the reality of peace to leave behind, or postpone until the distant future, the solution of problems that are essentially historical and theological.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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