Next to Israel, not in place of it

Uri Avnery

I am an Israeli patriot, and I do not feel that I need anybody’s recognition of the right of my state to exist. If somebody is prepared to make peace with me, within borders and on conditions agreed on in negotiations, that is quite enough for me. I am prepared to leave the history, ideology and theology of the matter to the theologians, ideologues and historians. The demand now addressed to the Palestinian Unity Government is far from sincere. It has two political aims: 1. to convince the international community not to recognise the Palestinian government that will shortly be established; and 2. to justify the refusal of the Israeli government to enter into peace negotiations with it.

When I was young, Jewish people in Palestine used to talk about our secret weapon: ‘Arab refusal’. Each time a peace plan was proposed, we relied on the Arab side to say ‘no’. The Zionist leadership was against any compromise that would have cemented the existing situation and halted the momentum of the Zionist enterprise of expansion and settlement. But the Zionist leaders used to say ‘yes’ to peace because they were able to rely on the Arabs to scuttle the proposal. That strategy worked until Yasser Arafat changed the rules by recognising Israel and signing the Oslo Accords, which stipulated that final status negotiations between Israel and Palestine must be concluded not later than 1999. Those negotiations have still not begun. Successive Israeli governments have prevented them taking place because they have not been prepared, under any circumstances, to fix final borders.

After Arafat’s death, it became more difficult for Israel to continue to refuse to negotiate. Arafat was always described as a terrorist. But Mahmoud Abbas was universally accepted as someone who wanted to achieve peace. Nevertheless, Ariel Sharon succeeded in avoiding any negotiations with him. The Gaza disengagement plan, which had Washington’s full support, served this end. But then Sharon suffered his stroke, and things might have gone badly for Israel under Ehud Olmert had not something happened that caused great joy in Jerusalem: the Palestinians elected Hamas.

This was a terrific opportunity. The US and Europe have both listed Hamas as a terrorist organisation; Hamas is part of the Shiite axis of evil (never mind that the Palestinians aren’t Shiites); Hamas does not recognise Israel; Hamas is trying to eliminate Mahmoud Abbas, a man of peace. It was clear that with such a gang in charge it was inconceivable that Israel should be expected to conduct negotiations about peace and borders. The US and its European satellites, just as Israel would wish, are boycotting the Palestinian government and starving the Palestinian population. They have set three conditions for lifting the blockade: 1. that the Palestinian government and Hamas recognise the right of the state of Israel to exist; 2. that they put an end to ‘terrorism’; 3. that they undertake to fulfil the agreements signed by Arafat.

These conditions only appear to be reasonable. They aren’t because they are completely one-sided: 1. the Palestinians must recognise the right of Israel to exist (without its borders being defined), but the Israeli government is not required to recognise the right of a Palestinian state to exist; 2. the Palestinians must put an end to ‘terrorism’, but the Israeli government is not required to halt its military operations in the Palestinian territories or end the building of settlements (Bush’s ‘Road Map’, which did require this, has now been conveniently forgotten); 3. the Palestinians must undertake to fulfil the Oslo agreements, but no such undertaking is required from the Israeli government, which has ignored almost all Oslo’s provisions: safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank, withdrawal from Palestinian territories, treating the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territory.

Hamas’s leaders have understood the need to become more flexible since coming to power. They are sensitive to the mood of their people. The Palestinian population longs for peace and for an end to the occupation. Therefore, step by step, Hamas has come closer to recognising Israel. Their religious doctrine does not allow them to declare this publicly, but the small steps they have made amount to a big revolution. Hamas has declared its support for the establishment of a Palestinian state bounded by the 1967 borders – i.e. next to Israel and not in place of Israel. Hamas has given Mahmoud Abbas freedom to conduct negotiations with Israel on behalf of the Palestinian government and has undertaken in advance to accept any agreement ratified in a referendum. Abbas clearly advocates the setting up of a Palestinian state next to Israel, bound by the Green Line. There is no doubt that if such an agreement is reached, a vast majority of the Palestinian population will vote for it.

In Jerusalem, worry has set in. If this sort of thing continues, the international community might get the impression that Hamas has changed, and then – God forbid – lift the economic blockade on the Palestinians. And now the king of Saudi Arabia has upset Olmert’s plans still further. In front of the holiest site of Islam, the king put an end to the strife between the Palestinian security organisations and prepared the ground for a Palestinian government of national unity. Hamas undertook to respect the agreements signed by Arafat, including the Oslo agreements, which are based on the mutual recognition of the state of Israel and the PLO as representative of the Palestinian people. The king has removed the Palestinian issue from the embrace of Iran, to which Hamas had turned because it had no alternative, and has returned Hamas to the Sunni fold. Since Saudi Arabia is America’s main ally in the Arab world, the king has put the Palestinian question back on the table of the Oval Office.

Near panic broke out in Jerusalem. This is the worst of nightmares: the US and Europe’s support of Israeli policy might be reconsidered. The panic had immediate results: politicians in Jerusalem announced that they rejected the Mecca agreement out of hand. Then second thoughts set in. Shimon Peres, a long established master of the ‘yes but no’ strategy, persuaded Olmert that his brazen ‘no’ had to be modified. If more extreme demands were made of Hamas – demands they were unable to accept – then Israel could continue to rely on Arab refusal in order to put off peace.

It is therefore not enough that Hamas recognise Israel in practice. Israel insists that its ‘right to exist’ must also be recognised. Political recognition does not suffice: ideological recognition is required. Olmert might as well be asking Khaled Mashal, Hamas’s leader, to join the Zionist organisation. If one thinks peace is more important for Israel than expansion and settlements, one must welcome the change in Hamas’s position – as expressed in the Mecca agreement – and encourage it to continue along this road. But if one opposes peace – because it would entail fixing final borders and prohibiting further expansion – then one will do everything possible to persuade the Americans and Europeans to continue with the boycott of the Palestinian government and the blockade of the Palestinian people.

The Americans now have a problem. On the one hand, they need the support of the Saudi king. Not only does he control huge oil reserves, but he is also the cornerstone of the ‘moderate Sunni bloc’. If the king tells Bush that a solution to the Palestinian problem is needed in order to stop the spread of Iranian influence across the Middle East, his words will carry much weight. If Bush is planning a military attack on Iran, as he might well be, it is essential for him to have the united support of the Sunnis. On the other hand, the pro-Israel lobby – both Jewish and Christian – is politically vital to Bush. He relies for his support on the Christian base of the Republican Party, which is composed of fundamentalists who, come what may, will continue to support the extreme right in Israel.

So what is to be done? It looks increasingly likely that the answer is: nothing. On 19 February Condoleezza Rice convened a summit in Jerusalem between Olmert and Abbas, strictly for appearance’s sake. Olmert and Abbas agreed to meet again ‘soon’ but no date was fixed. Rice spoke, meaninglessly, of a new ‘political horizon’. The horizon is looking further and further off.

22 February