Peace with Israel as ‘capitulation’….
The root cause of the conflict

Published: 28 Ferburary 2007
Briefing Number 190

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Summary: Thought-provoking analysis by Saul Singer of the Jerusalem Post of Arab attitudes towards Israel . His article highlights how Arab societies consider peace with Israel to represent capitulation and humiliation. The only way to change this attitude is to convince the Arab world of the permanence of Israel . The piece was published on 23 February 2007 , following an unsuccessful visit to the region by the US Secretary of State. We add Beyond Images comments and key messages at the end.

Background – Visit to the region by US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice

On 19 February 2007 , US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a three-way summit. Expectations had been low in advance. And indeed, little of substance was achieved. Days later, Jerusalem Post columnist Saul Singer published the following article, explaining the failure of the summit in light of prevailing attitudes of the Arab world towards Israel .

He suggests that peace-making efforts are based on a mistaken assumption about Arab intentions. In the Arab mind, peace with Israel would represent capitulation, humiliation and defeat, and he suggests that there will only be peace when the Arab world recognises the permanence of Israel .

Saul Singer: It must be hard to be Condoleeza Rice. Being the umpteenth envoy to bang your head against the wall called ‘Mideast Peace' is hardly enviable. Each trip, she must hold up the flimsiest straw – this week, the fact of a meeting – and call it progress.

One wonders if she and other top diplomats who, with great sincerity, dedicate themselves to this thankless task, ever consider that they may be on the wrong track. Not regarding the goal of peace. Or even the two state vision, but with respect to the underlying paradigm upon which all such diplomacy is based.

Rice is operating on a straightforward assumption: Palestinians are not embracing peace because they don't believe it is possible, or that it is attractive enough. The West's task, then, is to draw with increasingly vivid colours the ‘political horizon' that is the Palestinians' for the asking [ie the formation of a viable, internationally recognised and sovereign Palestinian state – Beyond Images].

From Rice's point of view, the situation must seem quite absurd. She must ask herself, don't the Palestinians realise that if they just stopped ‘struggling' they could have the state they are ‘struggling' for? Perhaps she wonders: why don't Israelis see that, if they just put their cards on the table, the Palestinians are exhausted and ready to do a deal?

Wrong assumptions about the peace process……

The assumption is that both sides want the same thing, yet are too hampered by historical baggage to take the other side's yes for an answer. But what if that assumption is wrong?

This prevailing hypothesis is unconsciously based on a misunderstanding of the Arab side. As hard as it is for us to comprehend, we must accept that in the Arab mind, peace with Israel – far from success – still represents capitulation, humiliation and defeat.

Since the 1967 war, which ended with UN Security Council Resolution 242 establishing ‘land for peace' as the paradigm for ending the conflict, the West has assumed that the Arab world favours such a deal. We tend to forget that in 1967, the Arab states were about to invade and destroy Israel , which at that time did not control a single grain of the West Bank, Gaza or even East Jerusalem .

Resolution 242 essentially said to the Arabs, “you wanted to destroy Israel , you lost, so now make peace and be happy you are getting the land you just lost back”. Though the Arabs were defeated and weak, they said no.

Now, Israel is militarily and economically much stronger than it was in 1967. Even diplomatically, just about all the countries that broke relations with Israel during the 1973 Arab oil boycott have restored ties. The UN's ‘Zionism is Racism' resolution, passed in 1975, was revoked in 1991.

Given this strength, it is not crazy for the West to keep trying the waters, hoping that the Arab world is ready to give up its century-old refusal to accept any Jewish state, however miniscule. What makes no sense is to forget that the Arab-Israeli peace that is a shining prize in Western eyes would be a source of shame and mourning for much of the Muslim world.

Arab attitudes towards Israel and the fear of domination by the West

A poll taken a few months ago in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and United Arab Emirates – all considered moderate Arab states – found that the most admired leaders there were, in order of popularity, Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah, French President Jacques Chirac, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. [Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad call for Israel 's destruction; Chirac is probably the most unsympathetic of all major European heads of state towards Israel – Beyond Images].

In 2004, when people in these same countries were asked why the US had invaded Iraq , the answers were perhaps even more revealing. ‘Controlling oil' and ‘protecting Israel' were cited by large majorities, with ‘desire to dominate the region' and ‘weakening the Muslim world' named by slightly smaller majorities.

In Western eyes, peace is so obviously desirable that the idea that it could be seen negatively is rarely considered. But try, for a moment, to look at the situation through Arab eyes. Peace would be the ultimate ratification of Israel 's existence. It would be seen as an abject surrender to the West's bid to dominate the Arabs.

How the Arabs speak of a world without Israel ….

In October 1995, when Yitzhak Rabin was Prime Minister and Oslo was in its heyday, Nizar Qabbani, the most popular poet in the Arab world, mourned the accords 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….”

Today Hamas leaders openly say that their dreams of Israel 's destruction are closer to fruition than at any time since 1967.

They see the struggle as not only, or even primarily, one of military strength, but of legitimacy. And if it is suddenly and increasingly more legitimate to speak of a world without Israel , why should the Arabs, at this very moment, throw in the towel?

In this context, what we think of as a ‘political horizon' designed to tempt Arabs [into a peace process – beyond Images] has the opposite effect. How does drawing up defeat make it more tempting?

Increasing Israel 's strength …. and its legitimacy

Unfortunately there is no direct way to change the fact that, to the bulk of Arab opinion, peace equals capitulation. All that can be done is to tip the scales of inevitability: from a world where it seems that Israel can be waited out, to one in which Israel is not only growing in strength but in legitimacy.

Those who vilify Israel are not promoting peace, but the opposite….

It may be counter-intuitive, but the Palestinians' many allies who think they are promoting peace by vilifying Israel are doing the opposite. [This includes many shapers of liberal opinion in Western societies and media – Beyond Images] The same goes for Western governments who assume that ‘even-handedness' advances peace.

The most pro-peace policy is the one that most convinces the Arabs of Israel's permanence. Even the US is far from such a policy, since it will not routinely reject the currently favoured back-door means to Israel's destruction, the Palestinian demand for a ‘right of return' to Israel (see Beyond Images Briefings 34 and 142).

When it comes to a ‘political horizon' the problem is not that the Arabs cannot see a Palestinian state, but that they can see a Jewish one.

The Arab world will settle for a Palestinian state only when it is convinced of the permanence of Israel .

Beyond Images comments and key messages

•  Following Singer's argument, the root cause of the conflict is not Israel 's occupation, but prevailing Arab attitudes to Israel .

•  Even in Egypt and Jordan , which have formal peace treaties with Israel , the attitudes described by Singer are deeply embedded.

•  Many take the view that Israel 's primary task is to convince the Palestinians, its neighbours, and the world, how earnestly Israel wishes to wind down its presence in the West Bank, the sacrifices Israel is prepared to make, and the risks it is prepared to take.

•  Singer's article leads to a different conclusion: Israel 's core message must be to demonstrate its strength, permanence and legitimacy to the Palestinians and its adversaries. That is a precondition for peace.

•  If this message can be conveyed effectively, the West Bank and other ‘final status' issues can be resolved through negotiation.