the ingredient that sours the pot

  1. 5,748 Posts.
    Jul. 25, 2003
    The ingredient that sours the pot,
    By Saul Singer

    On Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell gently but firmly signaled that the US was taking the Palestinians' position on the fence Israel is building to block terrorist attacks. "We have to take a more serious, in-depth look... to see whether or not it helps the process," said Powell, standing next to Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. "My colleague is aware of the concerns that we have about the fence."

    So now the fence has been added to a series of issues in which the US is taking the Palestinian side. Because the US is rightly seen as an ally of Israel, it is rarely noticed that, going down the list of issues between Israel and the Palestinians, the US either takes the Palestinian side or is agnostic in a way that undermines Israel's position.

    This has been most dramatically so regarding Palestinian statehood. A united US-Palestinian front eventually wore down Israeli opposition to the point that even the Sharon government has adopted an if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them strategy. But it is not just on this fundamental goal that the US and the Palestinians see eye to eye, but on most of the surrounding parameters.

    The US has for years agreed with the Palestinians about settlements. On borders, America will certainly be pressing to maximize the Palestinian areas and minimize the size of any settlement blocs Israel wishes to retain. On Jerusalem, the US government shows no sympathy for Israel's efforts to keep the city undivided under our sovereignty, despite the law passed by Congress to that effect.

    The US is considered Israel's great friend because it takes our side on one issue, the most overarching issue of all, Israel's right to exist. The Palestinians have essentially pocketed US support on most other issues and therefore are ultimately focused on a backdoor way to keep even the matter of Israel's existence in play.

    The formation of a Palestinian state over most of the West Bank and Gaza is not the fulfillment of the Palestinian dream but the demise of one. As the Palestinians often point out, accepting the entire West Bank and Gaza amounts to "giving up" 78 percent of the area between Jordan and sea.

    Nizar Qabbani, perhaps the most popular poet in the Arab world, described Oslo, which embodied this deal, thus: "In our hands they left/a sardine can called Gaza/and a dry bone called Jericho/...they gave us a homeland smaller than a single grain of wheat/a homeland to swallow without water like aspirin pills..."

    The peace process, then, is structured so that the Palestinians can have everything but what they really want Israel. This means that the process really boils down to the status of the only window the Palestinians see to getting what they want, the "right of return." The "right of return" is the Palestinian window to Israel's destruction, not so much directly by flooding Israel with "refugees," which Israel will not allow, but by keeping alive a spark that could develop into a full-fledged casus belli. If that "right" is recognized as part of a peace agreement, then Palestine will ultimately resort to violence to implement that right, regardless of any signed agreement.

    The current threat of terror behind the Palestinian demand for prisoner releases is a classic example of this process, as were the threats surrounding the size of Israeli withdrawals during the Oslo era. In both cases it did not matter what was written the road map does not even mention prisoners and Oslo gave Israel the right to determine the depth of its interim withdrawals. What matters is whether the Palestinians maintain or have relinquished a fundamental "right" that they claim.

    Given this dynamic, the critical question for the US is where to put the Palestinian demand of "return": in the pot of negotiable issues along with borders, Jerusalem, etc.; or in the pot with the one non-negotiable issue, Israel's right to exist.

    ALL THE issues in the "negotiable" pot are there because they are presumed not to threaten the given end points of the process: Israel and Palestine. The sore thumb here is the Palestinian demand of "return," which does not belong in the negotiable pot.

    President George W. Bush signalled that when he said at the Aqaba summit that "America is strongly committed, and I am strongly committed, to Israel's security as a vibrant Jewish state." The term "Jewish state" was used to indicate that the Arab world cannot play the game of recognizing Israel, while reserving the right to try and transform it into another Arab state by flooding it with "refugees." This was an important start, but it is not enough.

    If the US does not take a clear pro-Israel position on an issue, that issue automatically falls into the negotiable pot. So long as Israel's existence is, via the back door, negotiable, the Palestinians will not abandon the threat of violence and will not begin to prepare themselves to accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.

    The US sincerely sees itself, as Powell put it regarding the fence, taking positions based on what is "helpful" for the process. As part of being "helpful" the US is loathe to take sides when it can avoid it. But sometimes not taking sides is the most unhelpful thing the US can do.

    The US cannot claim that it does not take sides. It does so all the time, the latest example being the fence. This US stance is harmful; the US should be telling the Palestinians that so long as they do not dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, Israel has no reason to consider halting construction of the fence.

    But the harm from this position pales beside the danger of continuing to treat the demand of "return" as a matter for negotiation. It is time, as Bush meets today and next week with Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon, for another dose of moral clarity not seen on the Arab-Israeli conflict since June 24, 2002: placing the US solidly against any "right of return" to Israel.
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