One of the least understood nuances of the interminable and numbing haggling between the Netanyahu government and the Palestinians concerns the government’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” On the face of it, it’s an odd demand – Israel has never made the same requirement of any other country with which it established diplomatic relations – but also an innocuous one. After all, Israel does have a decisive Jewish majority and all governing institutions are in safe Jewish hands. That being the case, why should the Palestinians object, even if the demand is unusual?
The answer is that it’s all in the subtext. For only two relatively short words, “Jewish state” carries an extraordinary amount of baggage.
To start with, the Palestinians have already recognized Israel. In his letter to Yitzhak Rabin of September 9, 1993, which later became part of the preamble to the Oslo Accords, Yasser Arafat wrote: “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security,” and he went on to state explicitly that the PLO accepted UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.
Netanyahu’s demand that the issue of recognition be reopened (a precondition to the resumption of negotiations) is thus a decisive moving of the goalposts. It should have been a non-issue; one of the very few closed items between the two sides. So, the big question is not why the Palestinians object to it but why Netanyahu wants it in the first place. By understanding his thinking, it’s possible to understand theirs.
As I understand it, there are three main reasons for Netanyahu’s stance. The first, and probably least important, is that the UN Partition plan (General Assembly Resolution 181, adopted on November 29, 1947) recommended the partition of Palestine into two states, “one Jewish and one Arab.” If it was good enough for the UN, the reasoning goes, it should be good enough for the Palestinians.
Of course, the resolution also recommended that the Jerusalem-Bethlehem area be administered by the UN, which I imagine is not what the “eternal capital” bunch want. Besides which, the resolution was never taken up by the Security Council (the resolution requires that “[t]he Security Council take the necessary measures as provided for in the plan for its implementation,”) so it is not binding. The bottom line is that the General Assembly resolution does not give Israel a leg to stand on.
The second reason is probably the key one: In 1947 and 1948, some 800,000 Palestinians were driven off, or left, their land, which is now part and parcel of pre-1967 Israel. Their descendants, now numbering in the millions (some estimates put the number as high as seven million,) have continually maintained their right to repatriation or compensation. This so-called Right of Return is one of the major items to be negotiated in any peace process, and a huge headache for Israel.
The Netanyahu government believes that by accepting Israel as a Jewish state (i.e. one to which only Jews have the right to emigrate,) the Palestinians will themselves close the door on the Palestinian Right of Return. Arabs can’t be repatriated to a Jewish state. Problem solved, as far as Israel is concerned.
The Palestinians do not expect that Israel will agree to seven million Palestinians from the diaspora settling in Afula, Ashdod and Tiberias. What they do expect is that the issue will be recognized and a solution found, probably involving compensation (paid for by the US and the international community) and resettlement on land that becomes part of the Palestinian state.
What they are not prepared to do is renounce the rights of the refugees before final status negotiations have even begun. For that reason alone (and there are quite a few others,) the Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
The situation is similar when it comes to Jerusalem. Israel recognizes the city as its “eternal undivided capital,” a claim that is rejected by the Palestinians – who want the city to be divided – and the huge bulk of the international community. Israel expects that its recognition as a Jewish state would be de facto recognition of its sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem.
In short, Israel believes that its recognition by the Palestinians as a Jewish state would automatically take quite a few unpleasant issues off the negotiating table. That’s not something Netanyahu or any of his cohorts say aloud, of course, but it is the subtext to their actions. Recognition as a Jewish state would endow Israel with a special, untouchable status and relieve it of the unwelcome burdens that come with being a democratic and civil society.
Which brings us to the third, and most intriguing, point. Israel is founded on the belief that God promised the land to the Jews as a homeland. Without that biblical justification, there is no basis for the existence of Zionism and no relevance to any Jewish claim to land in the region. Without the covenant with Abraham, the Jews may as well have gone to Uganda.
Israeli fundamentalism has long since outgrown its secular, Zionist roots. Today, it is the force that powers the burgeoning settlement movement and a wide swathe of the Israeli population beyond, including many formerly non-Zionist ultra-orthodox and the so-called traditional Jews who gravitate to Shas. The rabbis in the settlements teach biblical injunctions (such as the right to kill non-Jews in certain circumstances) as if they were modern jurisprudence.
I’m not much of a bible scholar, but it’s my understanding that, in different passages in the bible, God promises to the Jews land that belongs to all sorts of people (Hittites, Canaanites etc.) and in all sorts of places – including on the east side of the Jordan, of course. He also instructs the Jews to wipe out all their enemies, including women, children and assorted domesticated animals.
To the contemporary Jewish fundamentalist, these aren’t just ancient texts, to be studied dispassionately. These are the word of the Lord – to be obeyed and implemented. They have the same weight as the Constitution has in the US (which is why Israel has never been able to draw up a constitution; in the eyes of many, it already has one.) The bible is taken very literally in the modern state of Israel, despite its high-tech industries and Nobel laureates in chemistry.
Bibi Netanyahu understand that. He knows that by getting the Palestinians (the descendants of the Canaanites etc.) to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, he would be implicitly getting them to agree to their own illegitimacy; they would be undermining the very state they are trying to establish.
A Jewish state of Israel does not tolerate any state other than itself between the sea and somewhere in the area of what used to be Mesopotamia. Nor does it tolerate non-Jews. In fact, a Jewish state, as described in the bible and embraced by the Israeli fundamentalists, is in constant war with the non-Jews in the region and tries its best to wipe them out.
Is it any wonder, then, that the Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state?