If someone asked for a brief, yet powerful, summary of the Arab-Israeli conflict and where we stand today, I might hand them Ariel Sharon's speech, given last month at the United Nations. It was poignant and personal, and probably the best he's ever offered as prime minister. It was also instructive in comparison to a speech given a decade before by Yitzhak Rabin from the same podium.
Eleven days before he was assassinated, Rabin spoke at the U.N.'s jubilee summit. Two things stand out, aside from the eloquent calls for peace. First, a passionate reference to "those for whom the creation of the United Nations came too late … the Six Million whose lives were turned into ashes, whose souls ascended to heaven in burning flames."
Then he made this bluntly prescient statement: "The United Nations must support those who are working for peace. It must intensify the international struggle against terrorism and its supporters. Terrorism is the world's cancer. Don't fool yourselves; even if you ignore terror, it can enter any of your homes. Terror must be defeated. Peace must win. This is a fight that we cannot afford to lose."
Ten years later, the core of Sharon's speech was also a plea for and defense of Israel's existence.
The first striking comparison, then, is that nothing has changed. Standing before a world body, an Israeli leader feels compelled not so much to advocate as a "citizen" of that body, but to defend his nation's citizenship.
Rabin did not say what Sharon said: "The right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel does not mean disregarding the rights of others in the land. The Palestinians will always be our neighbors. We respect them, and have no aspirations to rule over them. They are also entitled to freedom and to a national, sovereign existence in a state of their own."
These few words express the conflict and its intended solution in a nutshell. Sharon eloquently expressed the Jewish attachment to "every inch of land, every hill and valley, every stream and rock … saturated with Jewish history, replete with memories."
But he insisted that the Jewish bond to Israel can be reconciled with Palestinian aspirations to sovereignty. Unspoken, but glaringly evident, is that the Palestinians can have their state the moment their aspirations become limited to it, rather than to a Greater Palestine.
Rabin, the iconic peacemaker, did not speak of, let alone endorse, Palestinian sovereignty. Sharon did. And he did so after five years of the most brutal Palestinian terror offensive Israel has ever experienced.
This comparison should not only highlight the magnitude of what Sharon has done, but also what Mideast expert Barry Rubin has noted: that Islamist radicalism may have coincided with increasing Israeli pliability, but it has also become the greatest obstacle to achieving the goals it claims to promote.
Another shift over the decade: Rabin made no mention of Iran, while Sharon had no choice but to address that threat. "We know that, even today, there are those who sit here as representatives of a country whose leadership calls to wipe Israel off the face of the earth – and no one speaks out," Sharon said, damningly.
If the nations of the United Nations – founded so that free people could together repel international aggression – remain blind to the threat of Iran, then it hardly matters if the world body is reorganized or its secretariat becomes less corrupt.
Judging from these two speeches, Israel's situation – and, not coincidentally, the world's – seems to have deteriorated. The threats seem to have grown. Yet none of this should be cause for resignation or despair.
The dangerous and disturbing aspect of Israel's situation is this: We are still in the process of recognizing that we are at war, even as we are fighting it. The good thing is that once we accept the need to take concerted action against a handful of weak rogue states, the balance of forces – even setting aside military action – is such that the war is easily won.
Saul Singer is editorial-page editor of The Jerusalem Post.