From today's Forward
Even the most hardened of Middle East cynics could be excused for
momentarily feeling a fluttering of hope after witnessing the scenes at
this week's peace conference in Annapolis, Md.
Israel's much-maligned prime minister, Ehud Olmert, conducted himself
with consumate dignity, displaying a rare capacity to combine unabashed
national pride with sincere empathy for the other. Palestinian President
Mahmoud Abbas, for his part, met Olmert's outstretched hand with an
unflinching commitment to a negotiated resolution of this bloody
conflict and to a realization of his own nation's aspirations that would
not be at Israel's expense. Both men have developed a degree of genuine
mutual respect and appreciation, and they were on display at Annapolis.
Only President Bush came up short, sticking to a simplistic
good-versus-evil narrative that was not only patronizing, divisive and
lacking any resonance with the Arab world, but might very well prove
counterproductive. Nonetheless, the Bush administration, and especially
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, can allow itself a gentle pat on
the back this weekend: A joint statement was achieved, the conference
was well attended, the speeches were uplifting, and Bush personally
committed himself to the process.
The self-congratulatory moment, though, should be a fleeting one.
This week's peace conference assiduously avoided even a flirtation with
the serious substance and content of a peace agreement. The warm words
at Annapolis will be followed by pledges of hard cash at a donors'
conference scheduled for Paris in three weeks, but after that the
testing ground returns to the far more hostile terrain of the Middle East.
If, several weeks from now, the negotiations are perceived to have
stalled and the situation on the ground to have deteriorated or just
stayed the same, then the smiling Annapolis summiteers will turn
ashen-faced and their detractors back home will claim vindication. Such
a scenario is all too imaginable; a return to mutual recrimination,
blame games and American disengagement would be perhaps the bookmaker's
As coincidence would have it, the Annapolis gathering fell on the same
week as the 60th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations
General Assembly of Resolution 181. Separated by six decades, these
events are in fact intimately and perhaps decisively linked.
Celebrations in Tel Aviv, November 29, 1947
Anyone who has supped at the table of Zionist history has that night and
the U.N. vote indelibly etched into memory: 33 in favor, 13 against, 10
abstentions. This was the great moment of international recognition for
the Zionist cause.
The rest is history: The Arabs rejected partition, brave young Israel
survived a war of independence and a threatening alliance in 1967, and
the country has since grown middle-aged awaiting an Arab peace partner.
All national narratives tend to play fast and loose with the historical
record, and ours is no exception.
So where do we find ourselves in November 2007? Sixteen Arab states,
including all of Israel's neighbors, attended the Annapolis conference.
This comes five years after the Arab League adopted an initiative that
holds out the prospect of recognition and normal relations for Israel
with the Arab world once comprehensive peace is achieved.
Even before that, at the Madrid conference in 1991 and at the Sharm el
Sheikh summit in 1996, the Arab states stood alongside Israel when the
United States convened previous peacemaking efforts. Some dismiss the
significance of these developments and point to the curmudgeonly refusal
of the Saudis to shake hands, but as Olmert himself quipped this week,
"What did you expect, tea in Riyadh tomorrow?" The Arab states have
actually softened their own position by taking steps toward
normalization in advance of Israel ending the occupation.
The historic success of 1947 was a territorial division whereby 55% of
mandatory Palestine would become a national home for the Jewish people,
while 45% would be an Arab-Palestinian state. The prospect held out by
the Arab initiative and the Annapolis summit is of Arab, Palestinian and
world recognition and support for an Israel on 78% of that original
You do the math. The Arab world is saying yes to less than half of what
it was offered — and rejected — 60 years ago.
Some may ask why we ought to be defeatist now; history, such critics
have been known to argue, proves that the longer we hold out, the more
we get. This approach ignores the devastating damage done to Israel's
standing in the world and to its security, as well as disregards how the
country's priorities have been skewed by the ongoing occupation and
absence of internationally recognized permanent borders.
Are we really prepared to continue paying over the coming decades the
human, material and moral price in order to edge the percentage of land
we can call ours from 78% to, what, 80% or 81%?
Grasping the promise of the Annapolis conference and the Arab initiative
means saying yes to 78% and withdrawing to the 1967 lines on the West
Bank, including East Jerusalem, and on the Golan Heights. There can be
reciprocal and minor modifications to those lines, such as land swaps,
that would allow for incorporating the vast majority of settlers into
Israel's new and internationally recognized borders, but the basic
parameters of the deal are pretty clear. Israel would be wise to seize
the post-Annapolis moment, while the Arab consensus on the Saudi
initiative still holds and before there is a further waning of American
influence in the region.
It would be cozy and comforting if all this could be achieved in
accordance with Bush's division of the world into moderates and
extremists, but that is as intellectually lazy as it is practically
unachievable. The challenge to the Annapolis framework is not only the
need to summon the political courage to embrace the 78% option, it is
also to build a more inclusive process that creates openings for actors
who will be crucial to the credibility and sustainability of any secure
peace — in particular Hamas. Engaging Hamas, even indirectly, will not
be easy, but Hamas, too, is inching toward an acceptance of the 1967
lines. In the context of an agreement that enjoys Arab consensus, an end
of occupation and an acceptance of its own political role, Hamas's
acquiescence is far from inconceivable.
Annapolis represents Israel getting to yes with the Arab world. Now
Israel and its supporters in America should declare a resounding yes to
78%. Last time I checked, we were a people who recognized a good deal
when we saw one.