Monday, December 09, 2002

A Palestinian State?

There is no Middle East peace plan that has a reasonably good chance of providing Israel with full and lasting peace. Yasir Arafat and his lieutenants have a long record of duplicity, corruption and at least covert support of terrorism. Peace is a partnership and the Palestinian leaders are unreliable partners. Islamic radicalism is an even more formable barrier to peace, as it’s certain that any agreement with the Palestinians would be rejected by the many in the Arab world whose unyielding goal is the destruction of Israel.

But if there is to be peace – if not full and lasting, an arrangement that gives Israel the respite and hope for the emergence of Islamic moderation – a necessary condition is the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Ariel Sharon has said as much, thereby angering Likud and other nationalistic intransigents who seem to believe that a state of permanent war is preferable to a state called Palestine. While Mr. Sharon has set conditions which if adhered to mean that a separate state is not yet on the political horizon, he knows that Palestinian statehood can serve rather than hinder Israel’s security interests.

As the Bush administration prepares for war against Iraq, it is evident that it has a road map and timetable that give priority to statehood. In an interesting way that has not received the attention it deserves, what Washington is now doing amounts to a remarkable geo-political paradox, even distortion.

Much of the world believes that Israel is a key player and catalyst in U.S. determination to go after Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Israeli leaders who have come out in support of American and British military action certainly have not disabused anyone of the notion that defeating Iraq and deposing Hussein are important goals for Israel. Nor have American Jewish leaders questioned the wisdom of what the White House is doing or, more importantly, the assumed nexus between American policy and Israeli interests.

It is admittedly not easy for American Jews to criticize Mr. Bush. He has given Israel much support during the Intifada and as it combats terrorism. It is not smart to go after a President who is both popular and a friend, especially since the administration’s war plans are aimed at combating terrorism, a goal that Israel and American Jews share.

The problem is that there are critical issues affecting Israel that ought to be discussed. For openers, there is the problem of Islamic fundamentalism engulfing post-Hussein Iraq, a state which for all of the butchery of its dictator is essentially secular and has not been particularly hospitable to Islamic fanatics. While this does not make Hussein any less an evil man, it does affect political realities that should not be ignored.

Attention also needs to be given to the secret diplomacy that has resulted in quick and seismic policy shifts among Arab states that not long ago were strongly opposed to military action against Iraq. They somehow have embraced Washington’s line and are offering diplomatic and military cover. It is not going out on a limb to surmise that there are prices to be paid for Saudi, Kuwaiti, Syrian, Egyptian, etc., support for U.S. policies and that these prices must affect Israel in an important way.

One possible price is the U.S. commitment to speed up the White House’s road map by moving to establish a Palestinian state soon after Hussein is toppled. While statehood is a necessary condition for peace, it is also necessary that Israel negotiate directly with the Palestinians and not have “peace” terms thrust on it by others. We already know that Washington has moved away from the view that because Arafat’s hands are dirty and his record atrocious, he cannot be the head of a Palestinian state, nor should he be involved in the negotiations. Likely, back office diplomacy has resulted in other understandings that may not be acceptable to Israel.

Apart from the difficulty in challenging Mr. Bush, American Jewish silence about Iraq and a Palestinian state probably arises from divisions within our ranks. We have a peace camp that echoes those in Israel who believe that Oslo and the Barak plan are not dead and that whatever is labeled “peace” deserves to be supported. At the other end of the spectrum are the hardliners, also with their Israeli counterparts, who have always opposed giving up land. They believe that an agreement that accepts the idea of a Palestinian state is a clear and present danger to Israel.

Opinion surveys in Israel indicate that a strong majority is in favor of a Palestinian state. There are, of course, differences as to the conditions that need to be met for such an entity to come into being. But the conceptual consensus is overwhelming. It includes the recognition that there are risks to statehood. Israel’s majority rejects the peace-at-all-costs camp, recognizing that there is a large difference between taking risks and acting recklessly.

My guess is that a majority of American Jews who are committed to Israel recognize that peace entails risks and that a Palestinian state may serve Israel’s interests. If we stay on the sidelines, we will continue to promote the wrongful impression that we are united against Palestinian statehood. We may also forfeit an opportunity to influence Washington’s road map. American Jews now have close and important friends in Washington who care about Israel and who are signing on to the concept of statehood. I believe that we should support the idea and work with these pro-Israel forces to ensure that statehood comes with terms that enhance Israel’s security.

At the end of the day, there is no way that statehood itself can counteract the madness in the Islamic world which regards suicide bombing and terrorism as moral actions. But independent states have responsibilities and while there are risks, there are reasons to believe that an independent Palestinian state will take action against terrorism. This may be wishful thinking, but I doubt it.