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US Must Break Ranks With Israel On Recognition

Terrell E. Arnold

As reported by the International Herald Tribune, on February 15 the leading political factions in Palestine, Fatah and Hamas, reached an agreement to form a national unity government and to end the increasingly bloody infighting between extremists of the two groups. Under the deal, brokered at Mecca by Saudi Arabia, the parties agreed to stop conflict between their respective militants, and to form a new Palestinian unity government consisting of nine Hamas ministers, six Fatah ministers and five others for independent groups. This means that Hamas would lead formation of a new unity government. The principal wrinkle in this otherwise successful meeting was that the parties agreed only to "respect" past agreements. They did not agree to adhere to those agreements, and they did not agree to "recognize" Israel as the Middle East peace Roadmap Quartet (the US, European Union, Russian, and the UN), and of course the Israelis, insist. 

In a Jerusalem meeting early this week with Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made no real attempt to cope with the Fatah/Hamas agreement to "respect" past agreements. Rather she simply declared that she expected "to have conversations that are at a pace to allow real discussion and not to try to drive some outcome" Translated into ordinary English, she meant the new talks would be wheel spinning at best. According to Reuters, a Fatah representative reporting on the meetings with Rice was even more pessimistic, saying: "We hoped the meeting could revive peace talks in a serious manner, but the Israelis will do whatever they can to make it fail." 

If these reports are accurate, and, from a Palestinian viewpoint, or that of a serious seeker after Middle East peace, they have the ring of bitter truth about them, the United States has once again bowed to Israeli wishes. In so doing, it has put America's real interests in this situation at best on hold, if not truly in jeopardy. Why? To answer with Occam's Razor, the Israel Lobby and his Christian Right supporters have George W. Bush where it really hurts, and the interests of the great majority of Americans, or for that matter the great majority of Israelis do not come into it. 

The most incredible aspect of the situation is the staying power of the Palestinians. For six decades the Palestinian people have been subjected to endless human rights violations and injustices. Starting with the 1947-48 ethnic cleansing by the Zionists under David Ben Gurion, over five hundred villages and a dozen towns were literally emptied of Palestinians who were simply killed, imprisoned or driven away. With this, the Israelis started on the illegal, war criminal path they have pursued ever since, the goal being to take all of Palestine from its people. That is still the Zionist goal, whatever many peace-seeking Israelis may think about it, and that is why no negotiation with the Palestinians has ever led anywhere, why no Israeli leadership to date has been prepared to fix the boundaries of Israel, why Israeli settlements keep creeping across the spaces of any would-be Palestinian state, and why all Israeli peace proposals so far have put any substantive deals on the hard core issues (e.g., Jerusalem, right of return, compensation for destroyed and confiscated properties, boundaries) somewhere out in the future. The simple truth is that the longer such decisions can be delayed, the more of Palestine the Israelis will control, and the less land will remain for any Palestinian state. Contemplating all of that, the Palestinian people hang on. 

"Recognition" in these circumstances would require that the Palestinian people accept everything that has happened to them in the past six decades and to forego any recourse whatsoever. As couched by the Israelis and supported by the United States with the Quartet, "recognition" says that all the players accept the present situation as a legal fait accompli. But for accepting it, the Palestinians get nothing. To get "recognition", the Israelis make no promises (a) to stop their occupation of all of Palestine that is left or cease military harassment of all its people, (b) to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people in any sense, (c) to do anything to compensate the Palestinian people for six decades of Israeli induced hardship and attrition, (d) to stop creeping expansion, (e) to stop hogging the country's precious water resources, or (f) to release the 10-11,000 Palestinian prisoners the Israelis hold for the basic crime of resisting Israeli abuse. 

"Recognition" in these circumstances is not your garden-variety diplomatic acceptance of a state that is (1) behaving according to law and accepted international norms, (2) staying within its own fixed borders, (3) respecting the rights and the territories of the neighbors, and (4) behaving as a respectable state among equals. Viewed in those terms, from a Palestinian, or perhaps even a reasonable man perspective, Israel is hard pressed to qualify. 

US interests are simply not served, however, by playing with the Israeli urge to "recognition". Israel exists. It is making and contributing to a dangerous mess in the neighborhood. It may be, as some writers have speculated, that the recognition issue is a proxy for deep-seated Israeli uncertainty and guilt about what it has done through unremitting ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. It may also be, as others have speculated, that Israeli actions are driven by an abiding sense of insecurity that causes it to lash out at any perceived threat. All of that given, the only real contribution the United States can make to Israeli security lies with successful brokering of a Middle East peace, beginning with Palestine. 

As many have said repeatedly, the United States cannot accomplish that mission from its present position. A singular defender of Israel and its interests cannot fulfill the brokerage role. Telling the Palestinians who their leaders must be to meet an Israeli or an American index of acceptance is not an effective role. Punishing the Palestinians for putting greater weight on their wishes for strong leadership than they put on present comfort is hardly the best shot of a superpower. Leaving the Palestinians to decide who should lead them, as they define their leadership needs, is the first step for the United States and for the Quartet. The second step for the United States as honest broker is to stand back and take a fair look at the rights and interests of both parties. The third step is to put equal weight on the achievement of satisfaction for both sets of interests. The Israelis may squirm in this environment, because it puts a cap on their lust for living space, but the Palestinians have not asked for anything that is not rightly theirs. 

The Mecca agreement of leading Palestinian players created a unique window of opportunity for an honest broker to step in and work toward real peace. Middle East peace is far too important to get impaled on US/Israeli pique with Palestinian refusal to give away anything important for no visible gain. The job of the honest broker here is to see that the issues are cast in negotiable terms for both parties. At this moment, the United States simply is not able to discharge that role. Nothing will happen until the US role shifts to an honest brokerage that is visible to everyone. The only two people who can fix this-or take the blame for failing to fix it-are the President and the Secretary of State. If the Israel support groups have any sense at all, they will leave President Bush and Secretary Rice alone to get this done. 

The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions were as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter-Terrorism and Emergency Planning, and as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College. He will welcome comment at



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