Loaded phrase: Is­rael sets tone for talks

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By Abra­ham Rabi­novich

JERUSALEM — Is­raeli lead­ers have taken to us­ing a new phrase loaded with hid­den mean­ing ahead of a pro­posed con­fer­ence this month in An­napo­lis — “two states for two peo­ples.”

The phrase is a vari­a­tion on the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­peated calls for a “two-state so­lu­tion,” which im­plies Is­rael’s aban­don­ment of the no­tion of a Greater Is­rael that in­cor­po­rates the West Bank and the Pales­tini­ans’ aban­don­ment of any no­tion of de­stroy­ing Is­rael.

The “two peo­ples” for­mu­la­tion — ac­quir­ing cur­rency among Is­raeli lead­ers in the weeks be­fore an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence in Mary­land — sounds in­nocu­ous enough to the un­trained ear.

But the for­mu­la­tion is in fact a po­lit­i­cal bat­tle cry — a blunt re­jec­tion of Arab de­mands that Pales­tinian refugees be per­mit­ted to re­turn to Is­rael.

If this was not clear enough, Is­raeli spokes­men have spelled it out. The phrase, they said, means that Pales­tinian refugees could re­turn to the planned Pales­tinian state but not to Is­rael, whose Jewish char­ac­ter would be over­whelmed by such an in­flux.

Two weeks ago, Prime Min­is­ter Ehud Olmert raised the stakes by de­mand­ing Pales­tini­ans for­mally rec­og­nize Is­rael as a Jewish state. This, Mr. Olmert de­clared, would be a pre­con­di­tion for bi­lat­eral ne­go­ti­a­tions to fol­low the An­napo­lis meet­ing.

“This has been made clear to the Pales­tini­ans and the Amer­i­cans,” he told the Knes­set For­eign Af­fairs and De­fense Com­mit­tee.

Mr. Olmert’s po­si­tion drew ex­pres­sions of puz­zle­ment and out­rage from Pales­tinian spokes­men, in­clud­ing moder­ates who ad­here to the “two-state so­lu­tion” for­mula.

“Why does Olmert want to poke us in the eye?” asked chief Pales­tinian ne­go­tia­tor Saeb Erekat. The Pales­tinian lead­er­ship, he said, has rec­og­nized Is­rael, but will never of­fi­cially ac­knowl­edge its Jewish iden­tity.

“It is not ac­cept­able,” he said, “for a coun­try to link its na­tional char­ac­ter to a spe­cific re­li­gion.”

Mr. Olmert’s de­mand, in fact, is not re­li­gious in na­ture, but po­lit­i­cal. First of all, he aims to shore up his gov­ern­ment by ap­peas­ing right-wing gov­ern­ment min­is­ters who are threat­en­ing to leave the coali­tion for fear that ne­go­ti­a­tions will force sub­stan­tial Is­raeli con­ces­sions.

Be­yond that, and be­yond even the refugee is­sue, the de­mand re­flects a vir­tu­ally uni­ver­sal feel­ing among Is­raelis that the Arabs — es­pe­cially the Pales­tini­ans — do not ac­cept a Jewish state as a per­ma­nent fea­ture in the Mid­dle East even if some are will­ing to rec­og­nize it as an ex­ist­ing state.

Even mod­er­ate Arabs, Is­raelis think, look for­ward to the day — in a few years or a cen­tury — that Is­rael falls, whether through de­mo­graphic changes that will erase its Jewish ma­jor ity or through war.

Oblig­ing the Pales­tini­ans to ex­plic­itly ac­cept the Jewish char­ac­ter of the state, sup­port­ers of the new for­mu­la­tion think, would have an ef­fect on the mind-set of the Arab world and help it come to terms with Is­rael as a per­ma­nent neigh­bor.

The is­sue may, in the end, be dealt with by rhetor­i­cal fi­ness­ing. Mr. Erekat noted that the ma­jor­ity of Is­raelis are Jews and that in rec­og­niz­ing Is­rael, the Pales­tinian lead­er­ship al­ready has “rec­og­nized the com­po­si­tion of the state.”

While re­fus­ing to ex­plic­itly rec­og­nize Is­rael’s re­li­gious char­ac­ter, he said, Pales­tini­ans would rec­og­nize Is­rael by what­ever name it calls it­self.

Not­ing the emer­gence of the Is­lamic Repub­lic of Iran three decades ago in Tehran, he said, “If you call your­self the ‘Jewish state of Is­rael,’ we’ll call you that.”

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