In the week preceding the Annapolis summit last year, Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat proclaimed, "The P.A. would never acknowledge Israel's Jewish identity," to which outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reacted angrily with: "We won't hold negotiations on our existence as a Jewish state … . Whoever does not accept this cannot hold any negotiations with me."
In other words, recognizing Israel as a "Jewish state" is seen by Israelis as a litmus test for the Arabs' intention of taking peace agreements seriously.
Can these two views be reconciled? Of course. If the P.A. agrees to recognize Israel's "historical right" to exist (instead of just "right to exist" or "exist as a Jewish state"), Israel's demand for proof of intention will be satisfied. You do not teach your children of your neighbor's "historical right" unless you intend to make the final-status agreement truly final.
But would the P.A. ever agree to grant Israel such recognition?
This brings us to the word "justice."
One of the main impediments to the Palestinians' recognition of Israel's "right to exist" is their fear that such recognition would delegitimize the Arabs' struggle against Zionism in the first half of the 20th century, thus contextualizing the conflict as whimsical Arab aggression and weakening their claims to the "right of return."
All analysts agree that Palestinians would never give up this right. They might, however, accept a symbolic recognition that would substitute for the literal right of return.
Palestinian refugees demand their place in history, through recognition that their suffering was not a senseless dust storm but part of a man-made process to which someone bears responsibility.
An Admission of Guilt?
Journalist Uri Avnery, an Israeli peace activist and former member of the Knesset, believes that this deep sense of injustice can be satisfied through an open and frank Israeli apology.
Are Israelis ready to make such an apology and assume such responsibility? Not a chance! For an Israeli, admitting guilt for creating the refugee problem is tantamount to embedding Israel's birth in sin, thus undermining the legitimacy of its existence.
Can this attitude be reconciled with the Palestinians' demands for official recognition of their suffering?
I believe it can. Whereas Israelis refuse to assume full responsibility for the consequences of the 1948 war, they are prepared to assume part of that responsibility. After all, Israelis are not unaware of stories about field commanders in 1948 who initiated private campaigns to scare Arab villagers and force them out.
So, how do we find words to express reciprocal responsibility?
Here I take an author's liberty and, following Avnery, envision an extraordinary Knesset session.
I see President Abbas stepping to the podium and saying: "On behalf of the Palestinian people and the future state of Palestine, I address today the sons and daughters of the Jewish nation, wherever they are.
"We recognize the fact that we have committed against you a historic injustice, and we humbly ask your forgiveness.
"The founding fathers of the Palestinian national movement sought to liberate Palestine from colonial powers.
"We cannot ignore anymore the fact that the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 resulted in the British White Paper, which prevented thousands, if not millions, of European Jews from escaping the Nazis.
"Nor can we ignore the fact that, when survivors of Nazi concentration camps sought refuge in Palestine, we were instrumental in denying them safety and, when they finally established their historical homeland, we called on our Arab brethren to wipe out the new state.
"And for the past 60 years, in our zeal to rectify the injustice done to us, we taught our children that only your demise would bring the justice and liberty they deserve. They took our teachings seriously, and resorted to terror that killed and maimed thousands of your citizens."
This scenario is utopian. Yet, peace begins with ideas, and ideas are shaped by words. And the scene I painted above gives a frame to reciprocal words that must be said for a lasting peace to set in.
If not now, when?
Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA.