A Jewish State or a State for Jews?

By demanding recognition as a Jewish state, Netanyahu is revealing his true intentions

Last week I was privileged enough to see the King of Jordan, King Abdullah II, speak about the progress – or lack thereof – in the Palestinian peace negotiations.  Unfortunately, I am not allowed to specifically talk about where or what he said (a request often made by the King where ever he speaks), but I will mention how the optimism that he had for the negotiations contrasted starkly with my pessimism.  The King was convinced that peace could be attained if only those involved could find their way through the complex maze posed by the settlement issue.  As lucky as I was to be able to see His Majesty, I was not able to ask a question that I had been pondering for sometime now:  what about Netanyahu’s demand for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.  Specifically, beyond the new settlement issue and the difficult core issues of Jerusalem, borders and refugees, how would this new condition for peace damage the negotiations and is there a way around it?

King Abdullah did not broach this topic during the talk, but seemed convinced that, unlike his attitude during his first stint as head of state, PM Netanyahu was actually a good partner for peace.  I, on the other hand, remain unconvinced.  I will give Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt concerning the settlements.  The man is surrounded by people in his cabinet and government who are more than simply sympathetic to the settler cause; most right-wing ministers in the government, led by the indefatigable FM Avigdor Lieberman are actively campaigning for the continuation of the colonial settler policy.  Short of restructuring the Israeli government (certainly possible, but highly unlikely) Netanyahu has virtually no recourse against the powerful settler movement.

In his time as PM in the 90’s Netanyahu did absolutely nothing to establish himself as a peace maker.  Constant rhetoric against peaceful measures, including being caught on tape bragging about undermining Oslo, has understandably created many questions about the Prime Minister’s desire to make peace with the Palestinians.  It is possible that he has reformed his ideas on the subject, but Netanyahu’s call for Palestine to recognize Israel as a Jewish State is perhaps the most telling demand that he has made since reestablishing himself as Prime Minister.

Recognition of Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ essentially negates the Palestinian’s near-sacred belief in the right of return.  Said another way, if Palestinian President Abbas conceded such recognition, he is undermining the ability of millions of Palestinians (7.2 million refugees and descendants were recorded in Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria at the end of 2005) to return to their homes in Israel.  Similarly, Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish State marginalized the non-Jewish citizens of Israel – a marginalization process that has already begun within Israel with the current debate over the proposed loyalty oath that would require non-Jews to pledge to Israel as a ‘Jewish and democratic state,’ thus implying the superiority of Jewish people over gentiles in Israel.

[tweetmeme] What concerns me the most is that this demand and the subtle implications contained in the the wording is not only new and unprecedented, but that it forces Palestinian freedom to be contingent on what is otherwise a domestic issue.  If Israel wants to declare itself as a Jewish state, that is the prerogative of the citizens living in that specific state.  In no other example has a state required another body to accept its self-definition.

There is a distinct and important difference between recognizing Israel as a home for the Jewish people and recognizing Israel as a legitimate state, welcome in the UN and with the right to live in peace and security.  Yasser Arafat offered as much in an open letter to then PM Yitzhak Rabin during the Olso Peace Accords.  Recognition as a state for the Jewish people was absent in the Oslo accords and the peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt.  It was first introduced only in 2007 by Ehud Olmert and was rejected by both the Palestinians and then President George Bush as unreasonable.  Netanyahu, however, has reintroduced the idea with a vengeance, creating more questions, in my mind, about whether he actually is open to a free and independent Palestinian state.

Netanyahu’s effort to introduce a new core issue to the peace process has been strongly criticized as a means to undermine the Palestinian people.  Hussein Ibish said:

the language is unacceptable because it implies that Israel is not only a “Jewish state” because it has a Jewish ethnic majority and consequent self-definition, but that it “belongs” not to its citizens or its ethnic majority but rather to “the Jewish people” around the world and for all time. Netanyahu is asking Palestinians to accept that Jews (by Israel’s official definition of the term) around the world, no matter where they are and what, if any, connection they have to Israel or Palestine, enjoy political rights that are privileged and superior over any other group in a metaphysical, permanent and non-contingent manner.

Lamis Andoni, in Al Jazeera, remarked that “if Israel is a Jewish state, in the sense that Jews are the indigenous population, that means the West Bank is not an occupied territory and the Palestinians are there as an accident of history.”  Clearly, the requirement of a foreign government to recognize Israel’s domestic characterization is more than simply a matter of rhetoric; it is a means of further disenfranchising non-Jews in Israel and forcing the Palestinian government to eliminate the Nakba, or the 1948 catastrophe from the Palestinian identity.

Justly, President Abbas has refused to accede to Netanyahu’s demands.  Hamas has even called on Abbas to leave the direct negotiations with Israel over Netanyahu’s inflammatory requirements.  Furthermore, Netanyahu must know that while Palestine recognizes Israel and recognizes its right to self-definition, it will never be forced to define Israel in this way.  So is Netanyahu creating a demand that he knows will kill the slight chance of peace that currently exists?  It certainly appears that way.

Today in the Israeli daily Haaretz, Yoram Meital describes Netanyahu as creating the means to destroy negotiations with Palestine.  Meital underlines the Machiavellian nature of Netanyahu’s requisite for peace with Palestine.  Not only does Meital describe how the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state undermines the connections that many Palestinians have with their homeland and the implications for non-Jewish Israeli citizens, but the author delves into the message Netanyahu sends regarding Jerusalem.

The Israeli Prime Minister has long-held his ground on the issue of Jerusalem, saying on numerous occasions that all of Jerusalem, including the occupied East Jerusalem that Palestine and the international community envision being the capital of a future Palestinian state.  Although most of the international community view East Jerusalem as occupied territory, similar to Nablus and Ramallah, it seems as though Netanyahu is intent on keeping the sacred city in Israel proper.  Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, argues Meital, is yet another impediment to a peaceful transition of East Jerusalem to Palestinian control:

Is it conceivable that after demanding recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, Netanyahu would compromise about control over the compound within which Israel’s most sacred professions of faith are enclosed?

It is not difficult to see ulterior motives to the Israeli government’s need to impose a domestic decision on the Palestinians.  Ultimately, the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state or as a state for Jewish people does not matter when placed in the international arena.  The Palestinian authorities have openly recognized Israel’s right to exist and are actively looking for a way to create a viable state that can live in peace with its Israeli neighbor.  Netanyahu, by imposing irrelevant demands on the Palestinians, is perhaps trying to create a better sense of security for Israeli citizens, but it is more likely that he is attempting to simply gain leverage on two critical issues: refugees and Jerusalem.

Unlike the King of Jordan, I am unable to find enough optimism to believe that the direct negotiations will amount to much.  If the American administration can find a way to convince Israel to extend the settlement freeze and push the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, there are still contentious issues that must be overcome.  By using intentionally provocative language to place unworkable and unrealistic demands on the Palestinians, Netanyahu is not only ensuring the fall of negotiations, but is also setting the stage for the Palestinian delegation to receive the blame for the collapse.

Photo from IMEMC

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