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Commentary ::
The Arabists' revenge
30 Apr 2004
The Arabists' revenge

It was bound to come, and now it has. This week, Whitehall's Arabists finally revolted against Tony Blair. It was bad enough when Blair supported George W. Bush's adventure in Iraq, 52 former British ambassadors, et al, sniff, but to second his embrace of Ariel Sharon! This is going too far.

"[T]he international community has now been confronted with the announcement by Ariel Sharon and President Bush of new policies which are one-sided and illegal and which will cost yet more Israeli and Palestinian blood," the diplomats wrote in an open letter to Blair. "[You are] abandoning the principles which for nearly four decades have guided international efforts to restore peace in the Holy Land and which have been the basis for such successes as those efforts have produced."

The diplomats are right about one thing: Bush and Blair, to the extent the
latter has gone along, are abandoning an approach to peace. Since 1967, the international community has assumed that the Arab world was ready to accept Israel's right to exist in exchange for a withdrawal to the pre-'67 lines. The beauty of this assumption was that it put the entire burden for peace on Israel. The Arabs, by definition, have always been ready and waiting for Israel's withdrawal, after which peace will automatically ensue.

How this approach can be called a success is hard to see. True, Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt and gained a peace treaty, but Israel also took and returned the Sinai in 1956 and was rewarded with war again a few years later. So perhaps it was Egypt's trouncing in the 1967 and 1973 wars that had more to do with Anwar Sadat's historic initiative.

What we have seen over the past few decades is a blank check for Arab enmity toward Israel, and even straight out anti-Semitism, to flourish. Why shouldn't the Arabs hate Israel, after all, if everyone agrees that Israeli intransigence is the source of the conflict?

Suppose, however, that the destructive impulses unleashed against Israel on its day of birth did not disappear with our signal victory in 1967. And just suppose that, after years of being told that land could buy peace, Israelis decided to try it - first by handing Yasser Arafat a proto-state, and then by offering a full state over 97 percent of the territory in question. Finally, suppose that this offer was not only rejected, but led directly to the most vicious terror war Israel has ever experienced.

The rational conclusion from this trajectory is that what the Palestinians really wanted was the only thing they could not get from Oslo or Camp David - the "right of return" to Israel. But this is another way of saying that they never gave up trying to destroy Israel; they just adopted a more politically correct way of doing so than overrunning the country with tanks.

Yes, the peace process has succeeded in convincing Israel to give up land, but that has always been the easy part. Western nations knew this all along, as illustrated by the taboo against saying to the Arabs that they must give up the dream of "return" to Israel. If the Arab world really had accepted Israel, Bush's support for a "Jewish state" would not have produced howls of protest from Arab leaders.

It is telling that Palestinians are calling Bush's new rhetoric a "new Balfour Declaration" and demanding their own letter of assurances. What they are really saying is, you have recognized Israel's right to exist, so what are you going to give us?

Bush is being accused of abandoning evenhandedness and therefore jeopardizing America's moderating role. Yet the Arab reactions illustrate just how biased against Israel the international stance has been: constantly pressing Israel for territorial concessions while treating the Arab destruction-through-refugees strategy as too sensitive to discuss.

Mutual recognition, the ambassadors surely would agree, must be the basis of any peace process. If so, they should applaud Bush and Blair for moving toward real evenhandedness - a process that takes Israel's core existential requirement as a given, not a matter for negotiation.

Blair should see that the ambassadors are wrong not only on the structural level, but even on their own tactical terms. After all, if the trick to peace is convincing Israel to withdraw, how can this be done if the Arab side believes, as Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat writes in the Washington Post, that the term "Jewish state" must be "left to the parties to negotiate."

Anything Bush does now to "balance" his statement to Sharon would actually be a return to the destructive imbalance that he has begun to rectify. The Arabs do not have to be paid emotional damages for being told they have to stop pretending they accept Israel pending territorial concessions. The more Bush repeats his reality check and calls the Arab bluff, the more Arab moderates will be emboldened and the greater the prospects for peace.

This work is in the public domain