Accusations fly rapidly back and forth: Israelis complain about suicide bombers, Arabs protest the occupation of their lands. No wonder a recent poll finds 78% of Americans blaming both sides for the crisis in the Middle East.
But "a plague on both your houses" makes for poor understanding and yet weaker policy. To understand the Arab-Israeli conflict and the proper U.S. role toward it requires stepping back from the daily rush of details and looking at the big picture.
That picture is surprisingly simple, for since the birth of Israel in 1948, the core issue has remained remarkably unchanged: Should Israel exist?
In reply, most Arabs at most times have emphatically replied with a "no." This attitude—what I call rejectionism—stubbornly holds that the Jewish state must be destroyed, with its inhabitants either subjugated, exiled or killed.
Rejectionism has varied in strength from one period to another. It reached a low point in 1993 when the Israeli and Palestinian leaders shook hands on the White House lawn. Since last September it has again peaked, returning with a terrible fury and spewing forth ubiquitously from political speeches, the media, mosque sermons, poetry, school textbooks, and even crossword puzzle clues.
Some examples: The Syrian vice president portrays the current Palestinian violence as the "countdown for the destruction of Israel" and a Lebanese leader claims that the present time offers "an exceptional historic opportunity to finish off the entire cancerous Zionist project."
"We were forced to leave Jaffa, Haifa and Tel Aviv," says a leader of Hamas, the Palestinian fundamentalist organization, "and recovering from that can only be achieved when war returns and forces the invaders out."
A children's poem in a Palestinian magazine addresses Israelis; "You can choose the sea like cowards, or you can choose us, and we will rip you to shreds."
Rejectionist sentiments are sometimes expressed by Arabs in the West too, even if softened. The Guardian, a London newspaper, recently carried an opinion piece declaring that Israel "has no moral right to exist."
The revival of Arab rejectionism is a clearly a tragic development for Israel, whose people are being constantly murdered and where a Western, democratic, liberal, and affluent country finds itself reluctantly and repeatedly forced to assert its own existence through military force.
But Arabs, ironically, are even more harmed by their own rejectionism, for the obsession with destroying Israel obstructs skilled and dignified peoples from modernizing. Dictatorship, poverty, and backwardness are the wretched results. Release will come only when Arabs accept the permanent existence of a sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East. Then the Arab-Israeli conflict can end and the former combatants be liberated to achieve their potentials.
Understanding the central role of Arab rejectionism offers important insights into the current dispute. So long as rejectionism prevails:
- All other Arab-Israeli issues are unsolvable. Israel's control of the lands it occupied in 1967, the Jews living on those lands, Arab refugees, the final borders of Israel, water, and Jerusalem—none can be addressed until Arabs accept Israel.
- Arab-Israeli diplomacy cannot work. How can there be negotiations over the details of a settlement when the Arabs are planning to eradicate Israel?
- Israel should make no concessions. Recent experience shows that prematurely made concessions are not just useless but actually counterproductive. Arabs interpret them as a sign of weakness, which causes rejectionism to surge.
The demise of Arab rejectionism would reverse all these points. Then the parties will no longer have irreconcilable differences, Arab-Israeli diplomacy could fruitfully begin, details could be hammered out, and Israeli magnanimity would become useful.
When rejectionism expires, a settlement is possible.
How, then, to end Arab rejectionism? Perhaps one day the Arabs themselves will shuck off this cursed legacy, but in the meantime, Israel and the U.S. must take the lead roles. Israel's burden was eloquently described already in 1923, when the Zionist leader Zev Jabotinsky explained that "So long as the Arabs have a glimmer of hope to rid themselves of our presence, they will not give it up for all the sweet words and far-reaching promises in the world."
Israel's burden, then, is to be strong and to persevere, until Arabs eventually recognize the futility of rejectionism and give it up.
For Americans, the equation is simple: The more we stand by Israel, the stronger it is and the sooner the Arabs will abandon rejectionism in favor of more constructive ventures.