The Prerequisite for Peace in the Middle East: Arab Recognition of the Legitimacy of Israel

By March 4, 2010

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 100

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Middle East peace diplomacy aimed at ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the broader Arab-Israeli conflict is bound to fail yet again unless the process is reconfigured to emphasize, as its centerpiece, Arab recognition of the Jewish People’s ancient claims to their ancestral homeland and the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. Waiting for this necessary change of heart among Palestinians and other Arabs concerning Israel’s legitimate Jewish character and national future is the wisest route to peace.

American diplomacy has been very active, particularly in the last three decades, in trying to bring peace between Arabs and Israelis. There have been successive peace initiatives by Presidents George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and, more recently, Barack Obama. The record of American activism in the Arab-Israeli arena is mixed, although there is a clear improvement in Arab-Israeli relations.

The peace treaties signed by Egypt and Jordan demonstrate that leaders of the Arab world can show the courage to accept Israel as a sovereign neighbor. Although Anwar Sadat paid with his life for his courage, and King Hussein was the subject of assassination attempts before his death, the Jordanian and Egyptian arrangements remain in place and they are important for regional stability. Most Arab countries are cooperating partners with international intelligence services in the struggle against Islamic terror, and that cooperation is reported to be strengthening in many areas. It is an open secret that some Arab countries maintain contacts with Israel or Israeli companies for mutual benefits which involve commercial, social, intellectual, medical, educational or strategic interests.

The Saudi initiative ascribed to King Abdullah and the subsequent Arab League Peace Initiative of March 2002 supported the speculation that long-fixed attitudes may be subject to change.

The prospect that Iran may become a nuclear power has roiled the Sunni Arab world to the point where many Arab countries quietly side with Israel in seeking to block Iran from fulfilling its apparent nuclear aspirations.

The Palestinian issue remains unsolved despite the fact that the basic issues between Israel and the Palestinians are simple to state: a two-state solution; borders; Jerusalem; mutual recognition; and “End of Conflict.” Other issues such as Arab refugees, Israeli settlements, and so on, are supposed to be “soluble” in the context of a true “End of Conflict” agreement. So we are told.

But the question must be asked: If this is accurate, why has there been no real peace progress? In all previous peace initiatives, the magic-bullet formula was for Israel to make concessions so that a sovereign Palestinian state could be established. Israel was pressed to yield land and forego settlements in areas considered its homeland, which were acquired in wars following Arab aggression. The failure of those initiatives was almost always assigned to Israel’s refusal to grant the Palestinian Arabs what they “deserved,” namely, a state and relaxed security restrictions. The policy of successive US administrations to press Israel for unilateral concessions was vigorously supported by the United Nations and most of the international community where sympathy for Palestinian rhetoric can be taken for granted.

The answer to the question above is this: A peace process which rests upon Israel’s unilateral concessions is doomed to fail – unless and until the world also demands that the Arab states (including the Palestinians) recognize Israel’s legitimacy and sovereignty, explicitly and openly. Contrary to the myth that Israeli “occupation” is the result of Israeli aggression and a quest for “Lebensraum,” the Arab world must come to recognize that the Jewish claim for a state and for land and recognition did not begin in the twentieth century and is not simply compensation for the suffering of the Holocaust.

The Jewish claim for land and recognition derive from the days of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jesus, King David and the prophets. This claim has abided for more than 3,000 years, persevering through the creation and universal reverence of the Bible. The Bible reports that in his first year (516 BCE), Cyrus, the King of Persia, in order to reverse the sacking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 597 BCE, and to fulfill the prophesy of Jeremiah, proclaimed that he had been charged by the Lord to build a house in Jerusalem and to send the Jews in his kingdom to “go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel (he is the God) which is in Jerusalem” (Second Book of Chronicles 36:23). The revival of Zionism more than 100 years ago is a part of that history and its legitimacy lies in the continuous belief and aspirations of the Jewish people.

Israel has recently made it clear that any peace agreement with the Palestinians must include a clear recognition and acceptance of Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state in the region. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said in his famous address in June 2009 at the BESA Center that “A fundamental prerequisite for ending the conflict is a public, binding and unequivocal Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish People.”

Netanyahu made it clear that his government has joined previous Israeli governments in accepting a demilitarized Palestinian state, which would include arrangements to protect Israel’s security concerns. (Israel still has immediate and more distant neighbors that abide by the 1967 Khartoum declaration of “No Recognition, No Negotiation and No Peace with Israel.”)

Neither the UN, the international community nor the US has ever demanded unequivocal acceptance by the Arabs to recognize and live in peace with Israel. The US has never insisted that recognition and acceptance of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state be advanced as an independent demand in advance of an end to the conflict.

After years of unsuccessful peace strategies, it is time for a change. There are many reasons why a correction of strategy has a good chance to produce peaceful settlement for the true benefit of Israel and the Arab world. Peace is not a zero sum game where there can be only one winner and loser. The failure to convince the Arab world to internalize the right of the Jews to share the Land of Israel and to put an end to the conflict – means the conflict and the state of war will continue.

The centerpiece of a new diplomatic strategy should now include, in the mix of basic conditions for a peace process, that the Palestinians and the Arab World accept an “end of the conflict” agreement with Israel and recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state where all its citizens may enjoy equal rights under law. This formulation will not diminish the present right of every Jew to acquire Israeli citizenship.

When President Obama spoke to the world from Cairo, he said, “The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems. Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state; to recognize Israel’s legitimacy; and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.”

Israel has shown willingness for major concessions under circumstances of a full peace, while displaying great reluctance for such concessions in the absence of real peace. Israel’s experience with unilateral concessions has not been good and is not likely to be repeated. Waiting for the necessary change of heart among the Palestinians concerning Israel’s legitimacy poses great risks but there may be no other realistic alternative. While waiting, the current efforts of Israel and the Palestine Authority to improve the welfare and economic condition of Palestinians should continue.

The consequences of maintenance of the status quo may be briefly considered:

Continuation of historical trends in economic and social development: Despite the absence of peace Israel has managed to attain robust levels of economic growth. Progress in education, human rights, social services and quality of life compare favorably with the leading international exemplars of progress. In contrast, the trends for the Palestinians and most Arab states suggest greater regression, decline and turmoil, with no basis to expect change. That gap must be expected to grow.

Failure of Palestinian progress in self government and the responsibility of sovereignty: The failure of the Palestine Authority to develop a democratic polity or to achieve governmental stability raises questions whether it can fulfill the obligations of government to establish order and tranquility for its citizens and to ensure stable and peaceful relations with its neighbors.

Growing threat of terrorism: It is a sad fact that the consequences of Islamic terror falls most heavily on other Muslims. Failure to take steps necessary to counteract continued terrorism will delay the prospect of progress for the Palestinians and indeed for the Arab world.

For too long, Israel’s right to be recognized and accepted by the Arab world has been ignored by the international community and should no longer be ignored. The UN should be ashamed that each year it countenances General Assembly resolutions advocating the expulsion of a member state and similar outrages by a gaggle of states whose societies deny their own citizens fundamental human rights.

The US should lead the international community to correct a long-term injustice: Arab lack of respect for the legitimacy of the State of Israel and for the historical contributions and rights of the Jewish people. This is the most important prerequisite for peace.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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Kenneth J. Bialkin

Kenneth J. Bialkin, a lawyer, is chairman of the America-Israel Friendship League, former national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, and former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.