Israel and its friends had good reason to celebrate this week, as the international community prepared to remove the legal barrier that keeps the Jewish state from joining the Red Cross. To the shame of the world humanitarian movement, Israel has been effectively barred from membership for decades by a technicality in the 1929 Geneva Convention. The rules require that emergency services operate under the sign of a red cross or crescent, both of which are offensive to most Jews. That technicality is up for amendment next week at a meeting in Switzerland of the convention’s 192 signatory nations. If all goes as planned, Israel’s emergency service will be allowed to operate in international disaster and war zones under the sign of the so-called red crystal, a hollow square balanced on one corner.
What’s remarkable about the new agreement is that it comes at the behest of the Palestinians. At a ceremony in Geneva this week, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society signed a mutual recognition pact with Israel’s Red Star of David, clearing the objections of Arab states to Israel’s admission. Under this week’s accord, Israel recognizes the Palestinian service’s right to operate within the territories under Palestinian control, and the Palestinian service recognizes the Israeli agency’s jurisdiction in Israel, including East Jerusalem. The agreement, brokered by the Swiss government under pressure from the American Red Cross, is narrow in scope, but huge in symbolism. By granting de facto recognition of each other’s sovereignty, the two sides have shown that they can reach pragmatic agreements, including tough concessions on both sides, in the interests of saving lives.
The Geneva deal is one of a number of Israeli diplomatic breakthroughs in the last few days. Another is the Israel-Palestinian agreement on security monitoring of the Gaza-Egyptian border. Yet another is this week’s Euro-Mediterranean conference in Barcelona, sponsored by the European Union, which ended with a joint declaration by Israel and its Arab neighbors promising to combat terrorism — without the exception for “resisting occupation” that had been initially demanded by the Arab states.
Notable, too, was the Palestinian Authority’s vigorous defense of the Israeli delegation at last week’s Association of Asian Parliaments for Peace, in Thailand. As Ron Ezer reports on Page 3, Palestinian and Jordanian delegates went out of their way to demonstrate solidarity with the Israelis in Bangkok, frustrating attempts by Iran, Syria and others to have Israel expelled.
These demonstrations of Palestinian good will represent a dramatic reversal from past practice, and a welcome one. For more than a decade, Palestinian representatives have shown unrelenting hostility toward Israel in international forums despite the formal agreements between the two sides. Through good periods and bad, even when cooperation was strong on the ground between the two sides’ security and political echelons, Palestinian diplomats persistently exploited every possible arena to isolate and demonize Jerusalem.
In the last few weeks, the Palestinian Authority appears to have rethought its position and decided it’s time to start showing some decency. The change is due partly to international pressure on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to take control of his bureaucracy, and partly to his own internal considerations as he faces his voters next month. The biggest change, however, is Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, which has redrawn the map and changed the agenda on all fronts. The echoes of disengagement, from Geneva and Barcelona to Bangkok, prove a point long argued by advocates of peace: that changes on one side can lead to changes on the other. Good will breeds good will.
It’s up to Israel to make sure the new Geneva agreement works by ensuring that Palestinian ambulances can do their job with a minimum of restriction. The agreement must not remain mere words on paper.
But the Palestinians also have a job to do. Next week’s decision in Geneva could still be held up by the Syrians, who refuse to reach a working arrangement with Israel over the Golan Heights, or by the Iranians, who habitually obstruct anything connected to Israel. This is a moment for the Palestinian Authority to step forward and speak up. Nobody would carry more credibility with the rejectionists, who claim to be acting in the interests of Palestinian rights, than the Palestinians themselves.