Pattern Recognition: Why Israel's favorite rhetorical device is no longer effective
As a former pawn in Israel's foreign ministry, stationed in New York, the one thing I miss most is not the diplomatic visa, the corner office overlooking the United Nations, or the ability to park anywhere in Manhattan with impunity. What I find myself yearning for is something far more ephemeral and wonderful: the official state visit.
Every few months, when a government official made his way to our golden shores, my colleagues and I would take a few days off from our numbing desk-bound routine, and accompany the visiting dignitary to meetings with other dignitaries. There, facing each other, would sit two grown men in muted charcoal suits who, for an hour or two, would speak voluminously yet somehow, like communication magi, avoid saying anything at all. When the official would return to Israel, I'd be expected to write a report summing up the meeting. Unable to make sense of the hailstorm of drivel I'd witnessed, I would resort to the following beautifully ambiguous sentence: "the discussion revolved around the challenges and opportunities lying ahead in the future." It worked every time.
I thought about these heady days this week, as I watched Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, arrive at the first visit of his current term and meet with President Barack Obama. The meeting, as could be expected, was widely covered. Yet most reporters seemed to have missed Netanyahu's most important locution, a sentence so slippery it could only be captured by a highly trained former Israeli press officer.
"Mr. Netanyahu," reported The New York Times, "told Mr. Obama that he was ready to resume peace talks with the Palestinians immediately, but they would only succeed if the Palestinians recognized Israel as a Jewish state."
Behold the beauty of the prime minister's words. Peace, he insists, could only be viable were the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the home of the Jews. This, of course, implies that they do not, which in turn suggests that the Palestinians belong in the historical pantheon of Jew-hating villains, slightly to the right of Haman, the biblical genocidal maniac, and just to the left of Hitler.
But Netanyahu's words are sinister not just rhetorically, but politically first and foremost. His strange plea for recognition neatly packs within it a wilderness of bad intentions. To understand them, and the potential threats they pose for the struggling peace process, a brief detour is necessary.
For decades, Israeli leaders reluctant to engage in serious discussions with the Palestinians, needed only to look up to the Palestinian National Charter, the 1964 document that birthed the Palestinian Liberation Organization, for proof of the futility of negotiations. The charter describes Israel as an "entirely illegal" state, and therefore does not recognize its right to exist. And how, clucked Israeli politicians from 1967 onwards, are we expected to sit at the table with foes who won't even grant us the most primal privilege, that of existence?
Sensing, perhaps, that the charter was a bit too odious for western ears, the PLO's perennially pragmatic leader, Yasser Arafat, sprang into action. In a speech in 1988, Arafat announced that he recognized "the right of all parties concerned in the Middle East conflict to exist in peace and security... including the state of Palestine and Israel and other neighbors." A few months later, he went even further, telling a French journalist that the Palestinian charter was, essentially, null and void.
Neither statement impressed Israel much. Arafat, went the line out of Jerusalem, could say whatever he wanted, but it was the charter itself that spoke volumes, and the charter needed to change before peace was ever possible.
It was the charter, then, that was high on prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's list of priorities when he launched the Oslo peace process in 1993. Israel, he said, would only consider territorial concessions if the offensive document was amended to recognize the Jewish state's right to exist. Arafat was easily convinced, promised to submit the changes to the Palestinian National Council, and did so a few years later. The council was overwhelmingly in favor of the proposed changes, with 504 members voting in favor, 54 against, and 14 abstaining.
Rabin, however, was assassinated, and his successor, the very same Benjamin Netanyahu, focused on the charter like a hound on a wounded fox. The changes Arafat made, he claimed, were too legalistic, too murky, not sufficiently clear. The Palestinians, he declared, had to speak unequivocally and state their good intentions. Again, Arafat did just that, writing a letter to President Bill Clinton and assuring him that all of the anti-Israel clauses had been removed from the charter. In 1998, Clinton travelled to Gaza, and in a speech to the gathered Palestinian leadership put the matter to its final rest.
"I thank you for your rejection--fully, finally and forever--of the passages in the Palestinian Charter calling for the destruction of Israel," Clinton said. "For they were the ideological underpinnings of a struggle renounced at Oslo. By revoking them once and for all, you have sent, I say again, a powerful message not to the government, but to the people of Israel. You will touch people on the street there. You will reach their hearts there."
And while the hearts of Israel's leaders may not have been touched, their minds had no choice but to admit that the Palestinians did recognize - fully, finally, and forever - Israel's right to exist.
Which bring us back to this week in Washington. The newly elected Netanyahu, presiding over a precarious coalition that seats the centrist Labor party with the right-wing zealots of Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beytenu party, needed some ploy to stall re-engaging the Palestinians, an untenable prospect considering his hawkish campaign promises and the unstable alliance that is his cabinet. Looking back in time, he found the same canard he touted a decade ago, that of demanding some sort of recognition as a precondition to negotiations.
But whereas the old demand - recognizing Israel's right to exist - was understandable, the new one - recognizing Israel as a Jewish state - is ludicrous. Writing in Ha'aretz, Israeli columnist Gideon Levy captured the demand's idiocy in full glory when he suggested mockingly that Netanyahu might as well have thrown in a demand for the Palestinians to recognize the Sabbath as the Jewish people's day of rest, or recognize the religious laws that prohibit Jews from eating leaven during Passover.
As funny as Netanyahu's new demand may sound, however, its implications are dead serious. In reverting back to the recognition game, the Israeli leader is saying, much more clearly than any of his official statements ever could, that he has no intention of seriously committing himself to resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, ending the occupation and heralding peace.
Americans - in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere - should take Netanyahu at his word. While Clinton indulged Netanyahu's rhetorical romps and travelled to Gaza to bring about resolution to the spectacularly unimportant matter of the Palestinian National Charter, Obama needn't display as much patience and goodwill. Instead, the president would do much better if he was to avoid such distractions and tell Netanyahu, when they next meet, that if the Israeli prime minister is to find any sympathy in the White House, he has a few recognitions of his own to make, namely that empty political maneuvers will not be tolerated and that actions, not words, are the key to remaining on the administration's sunny side.
The alternative is to continue holding such empty, ceremonious meetings, in which both sides do little save for discussing, to paraphrase my favorite phrase from my years in the foreign ministry, the challenges and opportunities lying ahead in the future. It doesn't take a former diplomat to know that that's not nearly enough.