In recent weeks, much of the peace-process-watching media has been consumed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” What does this really mean?
Taken at face value, the Israeli demand seems innocent enough. Israel was founded as a refuge for Jews worldwide. Its primary national language is Hebrew and its calendar runs according to the Jewish holiday cycle. In spirit, the Israeli demand underscores the broader Israeli experience that has seen its core identity and ideology – Zionism – challenged by decades of Palestinian rejection. As Ari Shavit wrote recently in Haaretz, fulfilling the demand would underscore the fact that Israelis, and Jews before them, didn’t land in the region from Mars.
But, whatever the motives backing Bibi’s desire for this recognition, there is a deeper and darker underside to the request. There are at least three ways in which the demand is not only unreasonable, but might also serve to worsen Israeli-Palestinian relations.
First is the question of timing. The demand is seen by many to be a way of making an “end run,” as Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow with the American Task Force on Palestine, put it recently, around the issue of the Palestinian refugees.
Most observers realize that any likely peace agreement will not entail a wholesale return of four or five million Palestinian refugees. For his part, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has already renounced his personal claim to towns and cities within Israel. But the right of return claimed by most Palestinians will still need to be deliberated upon. The likely agreement may entail a combination of financial compensation, limited return and symbolic acknowledgment of the decades-old Palestinian claim to the land. There may even be some sort of symbolic apology uttered by Israel for its role in the expulsion and fleeing of the roughly 750,000 Arabs around the time of Israel’s founding. And Israel, for its part, would like to see some compensation for the similar number of Jews who were expelled from Arab countries around the same time. Until these issues are negotiated in good faith around the negotiating table, Israel’s demand is unreasonable.
Second is the question of Israel’s Arab minority. True, Israel maintains its core identity as a Jewish state. And there will need to be a long-term recognition of the needs and identity of each side for peace to endure. But one of Israel’s many ongoing policy problems is how to better match Israel’s democratic nature with its existing laws and practices vis-à-vis the 20 per cent of citizens who are Arabs. Currently, a range of quasi-legal practices, most notably house-purchase policies based on committees designated to determine “social appropriateness” criteria, disparate funding for towns, villages and school systems, and spousal unification policies, effectively discriminate against Arab citizens, even if the letter of the law does not. Many observers have therefore suggested that, if the PA were to comply with Israel’s Jewish state recognition demand, the PA would effectively signal it’s giving up on its Arab brethren within Israel.
Finally, as Ibish smartly suggested, this demand for recognition dangerously ignores the exchange of letters that occurred between Israel and the PLO as part of the 1993 Oslo agreement, and might therefore turn back the diplomatic clock unnecessarily. Then, the PLO recognized “the right of the State of Israel to live in peace and security,” and Israel recognized the PLO as the “representative Palestinian people.” Ibish further pointed out that, while the Palestinians recognized the State of Israel, Israelis were not forced at that juncture to recognize the right of Palestinians to a state. The acceptance of a two-state solution on the part of Israel has been arrived at gradually.
So, while the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state reflects deep and realistic desires for the state’s identity to be acknowledged, there is more to the request than meets the eye. In the meantime, Israeli negotiators should defer the precise demand while still harnessing that desire for authentic recognition. In turn, such a desire ultimately should be extended in a mutual way, so that each side can forge its future with integrity.
Mira Sucharov, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University, blogs at Haaretz.com.