Whoops! I Was Dead Wrong about Words and Deeds in the Middle East

02/27/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

In my last blog on this site, I wrote that Israel should drop its demand that Hamas recognize Israel's right to exist and start trading in real, crunchy carrots, such as blockade-free roads for rocket-free skies. "The name of the game," I argued, "is changing what the Palestinians DO. So long as they can be led to behave AS IF they accepted Israel's right to exist, what they say will not matter."

Guess what? I was dead wrong. While common sense tells us that a substantive, material benefit such as peace, land, or freedom to cross a border should trump any number of words, that's not what Scott Attran and Jeremy Ginges found in a survey of some 4000 Israelis and Palestinians that they conducted over the past four years.

Israelis and Palestinians don't play by normal trading rules. Nearly half the Israeli settlers surveyed said they would refuse to trade any land in the West Bank for peace, and more than half the Palestinians surveyed would take no material benefit for giving up their claim to full sovereignty over Jerusalem or to their right of return to occupied territories. Material benefits here include cold cash. According to Attran and Ginger, no amount of money--not even ten billion dollars a year for a hundred years--would buy off the Palestinian claims.

But what if the Israelis simply offered words? What if they officially apologized for the suffering they inflicted on the Palestinians in the 1948 war? If that happened, say Attran and Ginges, Palestinian hard-liners would be far more likely to recognize Israel's right to exist. Likewise, if Hamas as well as Fatah explicitly recognized Israel's right to exist, "Israeli respondents said they could live with a partition of Jerusalem and borders very close to those that existed before the 1967 war."

Wow. All this for words alone.

How can this be? Simple. Under certain conditions, words are not the alternative to deeds. They ARE deeds--what linguists call speech acts. When a man officially declares that he takes a woman (or another man, for that matter) to be his wedded partner, he's DOING something, as plainly revealed by the words. "I do." When President-elect Barack Obama swore last week that he would faithfully uphold the Constitution (or uphold it faithfully, for syntactical nit-pickers), he did something crucial to the future of this country. He took the final step to becoming president of the United States.

Likewise, to apologize for what it has done to the Palestinians would be an extraordinary act for Israel, and no less extraordinary would be a declaration by Hamas that it recognized Israel's right to exist.

To see that each of these statements is an extraordinary act is to see the folly of demanding that Hamas alone be required to act before it can participate in any negotiations over the future of Palestine. So long as we cling to that requirement, we will make no meaningful progress toward peace in the Middle East.

That is why I cannot applaud George Mitchell's forthcoming trip to the Middle East with more than one hand. Having patiently persuaded the Republicans and the Unionists of Northern Ireland to lay down their weapons and share political power, Mitchell brings an impressive track record to his new assignment. But what could he have achieved in Northern Ireland if he had refused to talk to the leaders of Sinn Fein when the British government regarded its military wing--the IRA--as a bunch of terrorists? What could he have achieved if he had demanded that the IRA give up all its weapons as a precondition for talks? You know the answer: absolutely nothing.

Yet in the Middle East, we go on acting as if this formula for everlasting stalemate can somehow be made to work. When asked about negotiating with Hamas during her Senate confirmation hearing, our new Secretary of State said that we would talk to Hamas only when it renounced violence AND recognized Israel's right to exist. Next week, therefore, Mitchell will visit Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the West Bank. What he won't visit is Gaza. This is ostrich diplomacy. For in spite of Israel's attempt to crush Hamas once and for all and strengthen Fatah, its recent war on Gaza has done just the opposite, leaving Hamas more than ever the party that it has to reckon with--and that we have to recognize.

Is it really unthinkable that we should talk to Hamas without preconditions, or that we should realize just what we are asking of Hamas when we demand that it recognize Israel's right to exist? Is an Israeli apology for what it has done to the Palestinians really more intolerable than more misery, more hatred, and more killing of civilians on both sides?

I'd like to believe that our new president would say no. Having just told an interviewer for al-Arabiya--an Arabic satellite TV network-- that he wants a new partnership with the Muslim world "based on mutual respect and mutual interest," President Obama seems ready to listen to all sides in the Middle East conflict, and even in Israel itself, some major politicians are now sounding conciliatory notes. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says that the Israelis must withdraw from the West Bank and share Jerusalem, and Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party and leading candidate in the coming election for prime minister, has said that he wants to build as broad a coalition as possible and improve practical arrangements with the Palestinians.

All this should lead us and the Israelis to take the unthinkable, unspeakable, but also indispensable step: talk to Hamas. Now.