Don't misjudge me. I am not particularly thrilled with the content of Meshal's statement, especially after learning that one hour later a Hamas spokesman denied any change in Hamas' refusal to ever recognize Israel. What I do find refreshing, though, is that Reuters asked the question, dozens of linguists and analysts were busy interpreting the answer and news channels from China to Africa were eager to report the results.
What made me cheerful was seeing that the fundamental question of whether the Palestinians would ever recognize Israel, the key to any peace settlement in the region, is back on the table and can be discussed in good company without fear of dismissal or ridicule.
Let me explain. Five years ago, if you were to ask this question among Middle East analysts, you were sure to be scolded by an army of well-meaning conflict-resolution experts for being a spoiler of peace or ignorant of the latest polls from the West Bank.
"It does not matter what the Palestinians think about recognition or legitimacy," was the standard answer, "what matters are conditions on the ground."
"The road to peace is incremental," repeated all the headlines.
Remember Peter Jennings, the legendary ABC News anchor? When he interviewed Hanan Ashrawi on his show and asked her about Israel's right to exist, she hushed him with: "Chairman Arafat has recognized Israel in 1988," and this kept poor Peter meek and timid for the rest of the interview.
When the Syrian Ambassador spoke at UCLA in 2005, and I asked him whether he personally recognizes Israel's right to exist, my learned colleagues were quick to rebuke my question as impertinent -- "What further proof would Israelis want to convince themselves of Arabs' intentions?" they asked.
In other words, the question of Arab intentions, the mother of all questions and the key to all solutions, has been locked in the closet for 10 good years, and it is only Hamas' victory in the Palestinian election, together with financial sanctions by Israel and Western governments, that have brought it back to the spotlight it deserves. Moreover, now that Hamas is recognized as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, Hamas' official stance toward Israel has given Western observers a crisp and reliable thermometer to gauge the Palestinian vision of peace, many times more reliable than the ambiguous polls and speeches we have been reading about in the past.
The emergence of such a reliable thermometer now provides valuable new insights into Middle East affairs, especially for those who believe that honesty and clarity are prerequisites to peace. True, we owe this progress to Hamas, but we have never denied credit where credit is due.
However, before we gloat, I should note that my friends in Israel have been consistently skeptical of all polls and speeches since the outbreak of the second intifada, and they have paid no attention at all to those who debate whether Hamas truly represents the heart and mind of Palestinian society.
Most Israelis today have become resigned to some version of the "salami theory," according to which the vast majority of Palestinians, Fatah and Hamas alike, will never accept Israel as a legitimate neighbor and no matter what agreement is signed, will continue their struggle to "liberate Palestine" in incremental stages ("shlavim" in Hebrew.)
The current fighting between Fatah and Hamas is viewed by most Israelis as a confrontation between two tactics aiming for the same goal, one calling for dismantling Israel in stages, using diplomacy, international isolation, demography, deceit and occasional terror and attacks, the other calling for open warfare.
This gloomy view, depressing as it is, rests on some hard evidence, which even moderate Palestinians have not been able to dispel. Aside from Arab's century-long rejection of Jewish sovereignty on any part of Palestine, well funded Palestinian organizations have recently intensified their anti-Israel campaign in Europe and on U.S campuses, aiming not at ending the occupation but at undermining the legitimacy of Israel as the historical homeland of the Jewish people.
Another indicator viewed with alarm by Israelis is that the subject of "comprehensive peace," including hopes, images and responsibilities of state ownership, is not being discussed in the Palestinian street. While Palestinians do lay conditions for peace, they refrain from discussing its parameters, even behind closed doors.
Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, is the only leader who dared remind his countrymen that compromises on the refugees "right of return" must be made if peace is to be given any chance at all. But all discussions of such compromises are considered taboo by the rest of Palestinian society, for whom "peace" has always meant a return to Jaffa, Haifa and Ramlah.
Finally, Palestinian intellectuals have been a great disappointment to Israeli peace activists. In an unprecedented candid exchange between two of the Middle East's most respected journalists, Salameh Nematt, an Arab, and Akiva Eldar, an Israeli, Eldar writes (Ha'aretz, December 2006): "The Jewish minority, which calls for the expulsion of Palestinians from their land and steals their olives, is my enemy. I will do everything legally possible in order to protect my Arab neighbors from the obnoxious attacks of this racist minority.
"But Israelis need to know that Arabs who call for the expulsion of Jews from their [Jewish] land and deliberately murder their children are enemies of yours, and that there are many among you willing to defend my family against those who deny my right to a secure existence in my own country."
Those familiar with Eldar's record as a peace activist and a champion of Palestinians' rights and statehood would appreciate his readers' disappointment -- after 30 years of intense outreach efforts, Eldar is still begging his Palestinian friends to acknowledge his "right to a secure existence in my own country."
Equally disappointingly, instead of reciprocating with: "....And I will do everything in my power to ensure ... in your own country," Nematt this month simply ignored Eldar's offer and moved to discuss the legalities and implementation of U.N. Resolution 242. I am not sure whether Nematt, or any Palestinian journalist, can bring himself to say the words "your own country" to an Israeli.
If they can, they certainly have not done so in their writings, though they know perfectly well that these humble words can energize Israel's peace camp more than all legalities and resolutions put together.
Judea Pearl is a UCLA professor and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation www.danielpearl.org. He is a co-author of "I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl (Jewish Lights, 2004).
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