Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just spent three days visiting Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. She spoke seven times, including interviews, press roundtables, and press conferences with assorted leaders. But reporters did not find much to say about Rice’s tour, beyond noting her announcement that henceforth Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas will hold meetings twice a month. (Perhaps she reasoned that the two leaders would end the conflict just to get out of having such frequent meetings.)
What wasn’t given due notice was Rice’s unveiling of a new philosophical component of the peace process, even though it cropped up across her whole trip, from her press roundtable in Washington on Friday to her closing statement in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning. Here it is, from that summary statement:
Just as Israelis and Palestinians must clarify a political horizon together, the Arab states must clarify a political horizon for Israel. These paths do not substitute for one another; they reinforce one another.
The Arab states should begin reaching out to Israel—to reassure Israel that its place in the region will be more, not less secure, by an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state; to show Israel that they accept its place in the Middle East; and to demonstrate that the peace they seek is greater than just the absence of war. Such bold outreach can turn the Arab League’s words into the basis of active diplomacy, and it can hasten the day when a state called Palestine will take its rightful place in the international community.
If pursued seriously, this new approach could be revolutionary. Rice is challenging a premise that has stood since the last Arab peace treaty with Israel over a decade ago: the idea that the Arab states can sit back and complain to the U.S. about Israel while taking no responsibility for moderating the Palestinians through their own example.
After Ehud Barak put a state on the table at Camp David, and Ariel Sharon disengaged from settlements in order to create one in 2005, there was not much more that Israel could do to demonstrate the obvious: it actively wants a Palestinian state. The Palestinians reacted to all this not by meeting Israel halfway, but by running in the other direction—becoming more violent and radicalized. And while all this was going on, the Sunni Arab world has been much more concerned about Iranian power in the region than about the Arab-Israel conflict, which has become a tool in Iran’s hands.
Rice is right: the Arab states need to help the Palestinians out of their radical spiral, and this means thawing Arab relations with Israel. But opening trade offices and holding low-level meetings will not be enough. Ultimately, the boulder that must be rolled aside to unblock the road to a Palestinian state is the Palestinian claim to a right of return, which infringes gravely on Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
The Palestinians are too weak and radicalized to make this move, so the Arab states have to start by saying there will be no “right of return” to Israel, only to Palestine. But why should the Arabs say this when even the U.S. hesitates to talk about it? Now that Israel has taken massive risks for peace and paid dearly, it is time for the U.S. and the Arab states to take much smaller risks with much greater chances of bearing fruit.