Sooner or later, if the peace talks manage to get beyond the photo op stage, so-called substantive issues are going to have to be discussed. One of them is Bibi Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
When seen in the context of new borders, settlements, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state – as opposed to a state with a Jewish majority, say – may seem like nitpicking. The sort of thing that is dealt with over drinks and snacks. But it is anything but innocuous.
To understand why it could turn out to be a deal-breaker (though not the only one, probably) it is necessary to understand both why Netanyahu is so adamant that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state and why the Palestinians are just as determined not to do it.
To the best of my knowledge, Netanyahu has never actually spelled out why he wants such recognition. After all, the Palestinians have already recognized the state of Israel (in the Oslo Accords, for example) and the Jewish character of the country is hardly a secret. Beside which, countries don’t normally recognize other countries as something – Italy as an Italian state, say, never mind Italy as a Roman Catholic state, which would be closer to the mark.
But Netanyahu is not looking for diplomatic recognition; his motives are a lot murkier.
For one thing, the Jewish state issue is a convenient straw man to have in his pocket. He knows in advance that the Palestinians won’t agree to it (we’ll get to exactly why shortly), which gives him the perfect excuse to scuttle the talks whenever he needs to. Bibi doesn’t want peace; he was bullied into the talks by John Kerry. At some point he’s going to have to bring the charade to an end.
Pulling out over land which the entire world considers to be stolen -or over refugees who virtually everyone thinks ought to be compensated in some way – would leave Israel in a much more precarious position than it was in when the talks began. But over the elementary issue of recognizing the Jewish character of Israel? What could be more justified?
The second reason Netanyahu will insist on the issue is to forestall any pressure to settle Palestinian refugees in Israel, even in symbolic numbers. By getting the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, he will be securing their prior and de facto agreement that Arab refugees have no place in it. (Would a Buddhist state be expected to take Muslim refugees?) At the very least it strengthens his hand on the refugee issue, if not forestall it entirely. Compensation for the Palestinians who were displaced in 1948 and their descendants (who today number between six and eight million, it has been estimated) will not be at Israel’s expense, either in land or in cash.
That is one of the key reasons for the Palestinian refusal to grant such recognition. Not so much as regards the refugees – it’s unlikely that there’s any expectation of resettlement in Israel – but as regards the current Palestinian population living in Israel (the so-called Arab-Israelis.) By recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, the Palestinians would be agreeing to second-class status for the Arab-Israelis. An ethnic minority in a state defined as belonging to the ethnic majority is, by definition, in an inferior position, whatever democratic rights they may enjoy. It’s not something that the Palestinian Authority can agree to, even at the expense of establishing their own state. It would be akin to Israel accepting second class status for a Jewish community in the diaspora.
There is another, less tangible – but no less critical – reason for Netanyahu’s insistence on recognition as a Jewish state and the Palestinians’ adamant rejection of the idea. If there were any doubts about the meaning of the concept “Jewish state” prior to 1967, 46 years of occupation have dispelled them. It is perfectly clear to all, including the Palestinians, that a Jewish state is an irredentist, aggressive and maximalist entity. It is a fundamentalist weapon in the hands of messianic maniacs for the literal realization of Jewish domination over a vast area, as written in the old testament.
Recognition of Israel as Jewish state would keep the biblical hope alive. In the minds of many God-intoxicated Jews, it would relegate the two-state solution to the status of a battle lost in a long, divinely-inspired war. However painful withdrawal from the currently-held territories might be, it would promise a future of even more grandiose conquest and occupation. The Israeli component of a two-state solution would not be one with which its neighbors can feel comfortable. It would be the seed of future wars.
The Palestinians know that all too well –and for that reason they won’t go along with it.
There is not much point in signing a peace agreement if the roots of the conflict remain deeply entrenched and able to flourish. Israel no longer even argues that the occupied territories in their entirety have any security value. It has held onto them for so long due solely to a biblically-inspired colonialism that is no less pernicious than its imperial predecessor. Until that mindset is changed, any peace agreement won’t last as long as the paper it’s written on.
The demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state is code language for everything that got us into this mess in the first place. The Palestinians know that and the Americans need to understand that as well. It has no place at a table where serious negotiations are taking place.