Why is Israel urging that Iran should be required to recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist as part of a nuclear deal? For the exact same reason that Yitzhak Rabin insisted on Palestinian recognition of Israel as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords.
When Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization began seeking international recognition in the early 1970s, Israel and the United States both insisted that the PLO had to publicly recognize Israel’s right to exist as a precondition for any Israeli or U.S. dealings with it.
Arafat wasn’t quite ready for that. He tried to have his cake and eat it too. He would authorize lower-level PLO officials to meet with Israeli or American Jewish left-wing activists, who would emerge from the meeting claiming that the PLO was “ready to recognize Israel.” That was sufficient for either Likud or Labor governments or Republican or Democratic administrations.
At the end of 1988, in the twilight period between President Ronald Reagan leaving office and President George H.W. Bush succeeding him, the State Department coaxed Arafat into making a vague statement that it claimed constituted recognition of Israel. The Israelis disagreed, but the Bush administration went ahead and established a formal relationship with the PLO. That lasted a year and half, however, until one of Arafat’s factions tried to carry out a massacre on the Tel Aviv beachfront. The Bush administration declared that Arafat’s complicity showed that his “recognition” statement was insincere.
In the years to follow, Arafat kept dancing around the magic words. At one point, the PLO chairman tried to explain away the PLO National Covenant by saying, in French, “C’est caduc,” i.e. null and void. That wasn’t enough for Prime Minister Rabin. He didn’t want some vague comment in a Paris interview. He wanted Arafat to say it out loud, clearly, as part of a formal commitment. (And President Bill Clinton even personally traveled to Gaza to oversee a meeting of the Palestine National Council in which the Covenant was allegedly changed.)
It was only when Arafat was willing to say the right words, out loud, that Rabin agreed to proceed with the Oslo Accords. He wanted Arafat to say he recognized Israel in English, so he would be making the pledge before the international community. And, most importantly, he wanted Arafat to say to say it in Arabic, so that ordinary Palestinians would hear it.
Sending a message to the Palestinian masses was considered crucial. A peace agreement with an individual terrorist leader would be fragile indeed. What if he changed his mind — or dropped dead — after Israel had already surrendered strategically vital territories? A peace accord needed elements that would ensure that peace would be nurtured at the grassroots, so that young Palestinians would be raised to accept Israel’s existence.
Of course many of us doubted that Arafat’s words were sincere. And we took note when his Arabic-language media began promoting hate-Israel instead of accept-Israel themes. But at least on paper, he had recognized Israel and would be in violation of the accords if he failed to promote that recognition.
And that’s why Iranian recognition is so important today.
President Barack Obama doesn’t think so. He told National Public Radio on April 6: “The notion that we would condition Iran not getting nuclear weapons in a verifiable deal on Iran recognizing Israel is really akin to saying that we won’t sign a deal unless the nature of the Iranian regime completely transforms. And that is, I think, a fundamental misjudgment.”
The president has it all wrong. Of course, one need not wait until the Iranian regime “completely transforms.” But unless Teheran is willing to publicly and explicitly agree to appropriate terms that it is pledging to observe in the future, there is no chance that it can be trusted to ever transform at all.
If the Iranians, as part of the nuclear deal, announced that they recognize Israel’s right to exist, it would send a powerful message to ordinary Iranians. It would be the start of the long process by which they will re-enter the civilized, peaceful world.
But if the Iranians are not willing to make even that small gesture, then we can be sure that they have not changed in any way, that they have no intention of trying to change the hearts and minds of the Iranian masses and that they cannot be trusted to adhere to anything they sign.
Moshe Phillips is president and Benyamin Korn is chairman of the Religious Zionists of Philadelphia. Both are candidates on the Religious Zionist slate in the World Zionist Congress elections.