Raanana, ISRAEL -- For anyone who wants to know why there is so much suspicion on the part of Israelis as to the real intentions of the Palestinian people, just listen to Saeb Erekat.
Mr. Erekat, who is the chief Palestinian negotiator, this week rejected Israel's position that it be recognized as a Jewish state. The newspaper Haaretz reported that in a radio interview, Mr. Erekat said, "No state in the world connects its national identity to a religious identity."
No state, that is, except for the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania and a host of other Arab kingdoms, sheikdoms and republics that base their rule on Islam. Egypt, the largest Arab country, has a parliamentary process with a formal penal code written and based upon the principles of Islamic law. The constitution of the new Iraq says that Islam is the official religion, and no law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be allowed.
Curiously, Mr. Erekat seems to obscure the fact that even the proposed Palestinian constitution clearly states that Islam is the official state religion and that Shariah - Islamic law - is a major source for legislation. In Europe, there are several examples of countries with official state religions, all Christian. So what, exactly, is the problem with a Jewish state?
For years, we have been hearing that the source of the problems between the Arab world and Israel is Israel's occupation of Arab lands and the lack of a Palestinian homeland. Now that Israel has withdrawn from Lebanon, Egypt, Gaza and Jordan, it appears that Mr. Erekat is saying that the real problem is not the lack of a Palestinian homeland, but rather the presence of a Jewish one. In denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination and independence, Mr. Erekat not only singles out Jews as undeserving of nationhood, but also blatantly ignores decades-old international agreements that provide for an independent homeland in Palestine for the Jewish people.
When the League of Nations first provided for a "mandate" for what was then known as Palestine, its purpose was to provide for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." When the United Nations later called for the partitioning of part of Palestine, it specifically referred to "the establishment of the independence of the Arab and Jewish States." Now, ignoring what was agreed to and denying fundamental rights to the Jews that he would extend to Palestinian Arabs, Mr. Erekat has shown that the problem is not the "occupation." The problem is the Jews.
Arabs in Israel represent about 20 percent of the population. They have their own schools, councils and national representatives. They attend universities, work where they wish and travel freely throughout the country. The Palestine that Mr. Erekat envisions will be free of Jews and has allowed rhetoric of religious leaders that, in official broadcasts, calls Jews "the sons of monkeys and pigs." But Mr. Erekat, not satisfied that Arab Palestine will be off-limits to the Jewish people, now denies Jews the right to even call Israel their own.
No doubt Mr. Erekat's apologists will spin his comments into "what he really meant was," rather than condemning his unfortunate comment - a comment that can only further doubts and suspicions rather than building trust and understanding.
As Mr. Erekat was uttering his words, Palestinians, whose obligations under the "road map" call for first ending terror and violence, normalizing Palestinian life, and building Palestinian institutions, were busy killing each other in Gaza at a memorial service for Yasser Arafat. This after years of failure to control the gangs of militias and terrorists in the West Bank as well, despite having their own security forces in all major Palestinian cities. With internecine Palestinian battles and a failed leadership, Mr. Erekat has thrown a monkey wrench into negotiations whose purpose it is to end Israeli control of Palestinian lives and create secure independence for both Arabs and Jews.
So is it really the "occupation" that is the root of the problem, or is it the fact that the Jewish state exists at all?
Irwin J. Mansdorf is director of the David Project Israel fellowship program at Lindenbaum College, a women's school in Jerusalem. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.