On 26 October, the pro-Israel think-tank The Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted a luncheon featuring talks by Tal Becker (Becker served as the legal advisor to Israel’s UN mission as well as being the diplomatic advisor to then Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni) and Michael Herzog (Herzog is a retired Brig. Gen. in the IDF and has, over the past 10 years, served in senior advisory posts for four defense ministers.) The talks centered on the security threats that face Israel and how Israel must work to defend itself against the various threats and are available here. I will comment on Herzog’s presentation in a second post.
Tal Becker focused more or less on the diplomatic standing of Israel and how Israel can act politically in order to reduce the perceived and real threats while increasing security. While Becker moved around the region in his talks, there were only two points that I really felt obliged to comment on. Firstly, Becker noted that, in regards to the Palestinians, Israel will be unable to impose a solution; secondly, Becker attempted to link Palestine’s refusal to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state to a complete rejection of Israel.
Becker’s first point is tremendously valid and important to understand. With the growing international support for Palestine, there is no chance that Israel will be able to continue imposing its will on the Palestinians without international consequences and condemnation. Israel has always looked to improve its security before making peace and views negotiations with Palestine in this same light. Israel cannot, though, impose its security demands:
In my experience in the negotiating room, we both come into the room with something that only the other side can give us. So, from Israel’s prospective, if you look at the need for us to have an end of claims or secure and legitimate borders recognized by the world or a resolution of the refugee issue or security arrangements which will be lasting – every one of those issues, at the end of the day, will require Palestinian agreement. And from a Palestinian prospective, we keep on hoping for the ‘if only’ scenario; if only the US did this, if only someone else did that, but at the end of the day, its up to us. We’ve shown a remarkable capacity, which I’m sure you’ve witnessed in the last few months, to say no to anybody. And, at the end of the day, unless we want it, it can’t be achieved
Importantly, Becker is implying that Israel is going to have to make concessions if it is to find peace – an idea that has generally been rejected by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Palestine’s ability to reject unacceptable proposals gives the Arab delegation (slightly) more leverage in negotiations.
More contentious is Becker’s second point. Becker said:
At its core, is the need for each side to recognize each other’s legitimacy and space for self-determination. So in my mind, if the objections are objections about those issues…they can be dealt with. But if those objections conceal a more fundamental objection, here is Israel’s concern, of failing to come to terms, ever, ever with the notion of Jewish self-determination, we have a real problem. And it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, there may be other ways to express it. It may not be recognition in bold black letters in an agreement. But at the end of the day, for Israel to take the risks it needs to take for an agreement, we need to know somehow that this is the end and not the beginning of something else.
[tweetmeme] Here Becker is purposefully conflating the notion of self-determination with self-definition and external recognition. Calling Israel a Jewish state is a domestic matter; it is a matter of self-definition. The internal, domestic issue of Israeli identity is far removed from the Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a state. Self-determination is the right of a people to determine sovereignty and political status; self-determination is what Israel is denying Palestinians. External recognition is what Netanyahu is demanding of Palestinians; it is the acceptance of another state’s self-definition. The refusal to recognize another state’s self-definition is not a rejection of the latter’s right to exist.
Palestine has officially recognized Israel as a state with legitimate rights. Palestinians, even Hamas, have renounced the intention to eliminate the state of Israel. That being so, the difference in opinion of how Israel defines itself should be secondary to the recognition of Israel as a legitimate state. From a security standpoint, it is far more important for Palestine to recognize Israel than for Palestine to recognize Israel as Jewish.
Becker says, “it may not be recognition in bold black letters in an agreement.” Of course here Becker is referring to the conflation of recognition and acceptance of Israel and the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Interestingly, though, bold black letter in an agreement acknowledging and accepting Israel already exist.
Overall, Becker seemed to place utmost importance upon coming to an agreement with the Palestinians. Yet he understands that a final peace will not be perfect (at one point Becker notes, “The word peace is kind of annoying… It creates connotations of some kind of utopia… And we sometimes make the mistake of comparing a peace agreement to the ideal peace agreement we could possibly achieve instead of to the status quo that we have that is not a status quo, but something that is getting a lot worse.”) He understands that Israel will need to make concessions to end an occupation that is increasingly isolating Israel from the international community.
While I tended to agree with most of what Becker said – with the major exception being the topic of self-definition – perhaps the clearest agreement was on the idea that neither Israel or Palestine feel as though they are on he brink of peace. Peace and an end of the occupation is essential for Israel; unfortunately, it will not come soon enough.