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Tony Blair and the False “Theology” of Arab-Israeli Peacemaking

At the Herzliya Conference in June, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed his support for the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, and added:

But to work, we must break with some of the ‘theology’ of peacemaking which has become hallowed doctrine over the past 25 years.

Blair, who also served as a representative of the Quartet—the European Union, United Nations, United States, and Russia—that seeks to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians, explained that the traditional “theology” of peacemaking should be replaced with efforts “to integrate the regional approach with a traditional negotiation.”

Blair was speaking of the Arab world’s growing (but still largely under-the-radar) ties with Israel. He noted that the real fault lines in the Middle East right now are between moderation and extremism, and that “In this battle, a democratic State of Israel should be in alliance with the nations of the region, because Israel faces the same external threats and therefore shares the same strategic interests.”

While Blair should be commended for calling on the international community to rethink the premise of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, he’s focused on the wrong issue.

Sure, it could be helpful to have Egypt and Saudi Arabia sign on to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but that’s a matter of process. What really needs rethinking are the premises underlying the peacemaking.

Blair alluded to these problems in his talk. He observed:

So the fundamental challenge is not a simply one of negotiation – borders, security etc. It is one of context, cultural acceptance and credibility.

Blair’s answer is to engage in an incremental process that would build confidence. But what if the lack of “cultural acceptance” is a core belief of one side, not something that can be easily changed?

An increasing number of observers have noticed that, despite more than 23 years passing since the signing of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians—or at least their leaders—remain fundamentally opposed to the concept of Jewish statehood in the Middle East.

Benjamin Kerstein summed up the problem very well last month in The Tower Magazine:

Put simply, we believe a Jewish state in the Land of Israel in some form is our birthright. The Arabs believe that we have stolen their birthright. In effect, we are Jacob to their Esau. To them, our simple presence in the land is an act of war. This is why we so often see the genocidal chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” as well as the claim that the “occupation” began in 1948 rather than 1967, and that the very idea of a Jewish state, in and of itself, is evil. Given such hostility, Israel’s reluctance to bow to foreign demands is somewhat understandable. Under such circumstances, an end to the occupation without a sea change in Arab attitudes, which given the current view of Israel in the Arab world seems unlikely to take place anytime soon, would solve nothing. Even if a peace treaty were signed, it would likely prove unsustainable.

Kerstein is not alone. This week in The Washington Post, former State Department official Yehuda Mirsky traced the roots of Palestinian incitement over Jerusalem and denial of its Jewish history to the tactics adopted by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, in the 1920s. Husseini, Mirsky wrote, “sought to Islamicize the political struggle with Zionism” in order to rally the Arabs to the cause of nationalism.

“Any hope for a sustainable future requires Palestinians to accept the historic tie and sacred nature of the Temple Mount for Jews,” Mirsky concluded. “Rather than denying Jewish history, Palestinians must instead construct secular political institutions and partnerships with the many Israelis who would be glad to maintain a peaceful status quo on the Mount for the sake of a livable Jerusalem. Absent this, the Palestinians will find themselves without Israeli partners, and peace, or even coexistence, will be ever harder to achieve.”

Earlier this year, Max Singer, a scholar at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies wrote a paper about how the U.S., despite its support for Israel, does not often challenge Palestinian leaders when they promote a “false narrative” of the conflict with Israel. Singer called on Washington to adopt a “truth-telling strategy” that would counter the biased Palestinian narrative.

“A truth-telling US strategy would not continue to assume that peace can be negotiated with the Palestinians if Israel makes appropriate concessions,” Singer observed. “Truth-telling is consistent with urging negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but not from the position that the success of those negotiations will depend on what Israel does. A truth-telling strategy would recognize that agreement on peace can only happen after Palestinians have public debates about “refugees” and about accepting Israel.”

Similarly, Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign affairs expert at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in an essay published in Commentary magazine last year:

At the core of the conflict, standing out like a skyscraper in a desert to anyone who cared to notice, is the Palestinian refusal to accept Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East. This attitude has existed for at least a century, since the Arab rejection of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. While much has changed in the region over those 10 decades, the conflict’s fundamental cause has not. The Palestinians’ position is expressed in their devotion to what has come to be called incitement: incessant derogatory propaganda about Jews and Israel, the denial of any historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem and its environs, and the insistence that all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea belongs to the Arabs, making the Jews living there, in the Palestinian view, contemptible interlopers to be killed or evicted.

Blair is correct in that to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians, we need to break with the theology of peacemaking. The problem is that the theology Blair wishes to change only addresses the process of making peace. The theology that needs to change is a belief that both Israelis and Palestinians are equally ready to make peace.

Over the past nearly 24 years, Israel has taken significant risks for peace, making concrete territorial concessions and releasing dangerous prisoners in the name of building confidence and making peace. Despite this, the Palestinians—as Kerstein, Mirsky, Singer, and Mandlebaum have shown—still don’t accept Israel’s legitimacy. For the peacemaking process to conclude, or even advance, the Palestinians’ denial of Israel must end.

[Photo: HerzliyaConference / YouTube]