For some weeks, I have been making my plodding, gradual way through Abba Eban’s Personal Witness: Israel Through My Eyes (published 1992). In addition to being one of the chief architects of the newborn State of Israel (chiefly in the area of diplomacy, at one time serving simultaneously as Ambassador to the U.S. and Ambassador to the U.N.), and perhaps the most eloquent spokesman for the Left I’ve ever read, he was a master of the English language, the bon mot, and the quotable quip. (Some may have heard one of his more famous expressions, that “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”) I have read his positions on international and domestic issues with interest, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, but always learning more about the complexity of each difficult choice Israel has had to make in its history.
One passage in the book caught my eye in particular, since it is an issue that comes up repeatedly as Israel and the PA dance the two-step around even the thought of sitting down to negotiate peace: the demand of Israel that the PA formally recognize Israel’s “right to exist.” I have written about this in the past, disparagingly, and Eban seems to have thought along similar lines:
In articles in the world press, I took sharp issue with the Israeli and American demand for PLO “recognition of Israel’s right to exist.” I considered this to be demeaning for Israel. Under the UN General Assembly Resolution 273 admitting Israel to membership in the United Nations, we were a peace-loving state equal in sovereignty to the United States, the Soviet Union and all the other Charter signatories. How could we solicit an organization of vastly inferior international standing to recognize our right to exist? Our government was asking the Palestinians for what was the hardest thing for them to do and the least useful thing for us to receive. I wrote that Israel’s right to exist was independent of anyone’s recognition of it and that no self-respecting nation had ever put its own legitimacy to challenge long after the world community had recognized its sovereignty. Later, when Menachem Begin announced his cabinet to the Knesset in June 1977, I had the satisfaction of hearing him support the view that Israel should never ask anyone to “recognize its right to exist.”
And yet when I read this passage aloud to the Cap’n, the following conversation ensued:
Me: Don’t you think that makes sense? Who are the Palestinian Arabs to recognize or not recognize us? Why do we need their recognition?
Cap’n: We don’t.
Me: Then why do you think Israel is so stuck on this idea?
Cap’n: Because formal recognition of Israel by the PA would mean the end of the conflict.
The Cap’n is right, of course. It’s not about “recognition” at all, at least in the sense of their admitting that we are here and that they’ve thus far failed to drive us away. But to recognize Israel in the political sense, aloud, formally, and for all the world to hear, would amount to a renunciation of their goal to stamp us out—something they agreed to do in 1993 by altering the PLO Charter, but have never done.
A reader asked me recently whether Abbas might not prove to be a pragmatist after all, and see peace as within the interests of the Palestinian people. I replied that Abbas has not officially renounced violence against Israel, even calling last week’s Hamas-claimed murder of four Israelis (including the much-loved special ed. gan teacher whom I sometimes used to see when dropping Banana off at her gan next door last year) an “operation” rather than an “attack.” As long as violence is judged to be either in or not in the Palestinian people’s interests, and not morally wrong, I see little chance of an end to the conflict. To give away land for a nation of people sworn to our destruction without receiving any confirmation of their intention to respect our sovereignty, borders, and right to security, would be suicidal for Israel. Because once we do so, there is no going back for Israel, either. If we don’t get all the assurances of security up front, we can’t ask for them later. Eban also writes, “Whenever agreements are discussed between Israel and an Arab state, the question ‘Can they be trusted?’ always arises on our side. In such agreements Israel renounces concrete possession in return for behavioral assurances.” And those assurances have all too often been violated.
The Cap’n and I learned from a talk given recently by Col. (res.) Dany Tirza that the peace offer made by Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Yasser Arafat in 2000 was turned down not because it was insufficiently generous, but because Barak insisted that with this offer had to come an end to the conflict. Who makes peace with the understanding that the war will continue indefinitely?
If that is what recognition of Israel really means, then I begin to understand its centrality in any discussion of peace.