The US-led political process between Israel and the Palestinians is hitting a wall. Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the ‘nation state of the Jewish People’ has been framed as a key stumbling block.
Dear friends and supporters,
The US-led political process between Israel and the Palestinians is hitting a wall. Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the ‘nation state of the Jewish People’ has been framed as a key stumbling block. Yet, this demand is no longer just a point of disagreement between Israelis and Palestinians, but also the subject of an intense substantive, political and ideological debate within Israel, which sometimes crosses partisan lines (see Knesset debate (in Hebrew) and Ari Shavit’s recent op-ed).
I hold this Israeli demand to be a just one, yet non-essential, and therefore unnecessary. Instead, Israel should have asked the Palestinians to acknowledge that the establishment of a Palestinian state would fully realize the right of the entire Palestinian people to self determination, and that the Palestinian state would only represent its citizens and residents (see this Reut paper). This would ensure that a future Palestine would be explicitly confined to representing its own citizens and them alone, and limited in seeking to represent Palestinians in Israel or Jordan. That demand was made by the Israeli negotiation team under Prime Minister Barak in 2000. I served as the Secretary of this delegation, and played a leading role in these deliberations.
Here is why this is a far better position to take. First, the issue of Palestinian representation is one for which Abbas can speak with full authority as the leader of the PLO, and the future leader of the Palestinian state. Second, such a demand would create an alliance not only between Israel and the USA, but also with Jordan, who shares an identical interest to confine Palestinian political ambitions, as was the case in 2000. In contrast, Israel’s current demand pushed the Jordanians into the Palestinian camp. Third, such a position may help to establish a clear political fault line between the PLO and the future Palestinian state, on the one hand, and Israel’s Arab citizens, on the other hand. That fault line is being blared by the present Israeli position.
Finally, the premise of the entire political process since 1991 has been “Two States for Two Peoples.” This core idea was rejected by the Palestinians as of 1936 but was supposedly accepted by them as of 1988. There are two elements to this logic, and both are crucial for Zionism. In other words, it is as important for Israel that one of these states is explicitly designated for the Palestinian people, as it is important that the other state, our State of Israel, is for the Jewish People. Unfortunately, the present Israeli demand loses sight of the former logic.
In conclusion: as long as the Palestinian leadership declares that the establishment of the Palestinian state realizes the right of the entire Palestinian people to self-determination, and undertakes to represent its citizens and them alone, Israel can be less sensitive to whether the Palestinians simply recognize ‘the State of Israel,’ as they already did, adopt the language of ‘Jewish State’ and ‘Arab State’ as is enshrined in UNGAR 181, or accept the current Israeli demand for the more specific language of ‘Israel as the nation state of the Jewish People.’
So why is Israel’s present demand weak?
First, I find Palestinian recognition in Israel’s identity is immaterial to Israel’s future character: Israel’s Jewishness stems from its democracy, with 80% of its population being Jewish. But, if demographics change, and Jews become a 60-40 majority or even a 40-60 minority, Abbas’ recognition will likely mean very little under the pressures of democracy and international law. In other words, it is far more important to deal with the demographic condition than with declaratory legalistic statements.
Second, this Israeli demand unnecessarily re-opens a historical achievement of Zionism, and is an ‘escalation’ compared to previous rounds of negotiations. The Palestinians have already recognized Israel more than once in the past (see here Arafat’s letter to PM Rabin in September 1993), as did Egypt and Jordan. Those recognitions were moments of triumph for Zionism in its long journey and quest for acceptance in the region, which should ultimately lead to Israel being surrounded by bilaterally agreed and internationally recognized borders. Thus, Israel should view its recognition by the Palestinians as a ‘done deal’ and not re-negotiate it and put the issue back in question. Also, the language that was sufficient for Prime Ministers Begin, Rabin and even for Netanyahu in 1996, should be good enough today.
Third, as most Israelis do not have a common understanding of the meaning of ‘Israel being the nation state of the Jewish People’, it is unrealistic to expect Abbas to endorse such an unclear notion. For many Israelis, Israel is understood to be ‘Jewish’ in the same manner that France is the state of the French people. But for many Diaspora Jews and many non-Jews, Israel is ‘Jewish’ in the same manner that other nations may be Christian or Moslem. Prime Minister Netanyahu embraced the former approach of Israel being the nation state of the Jewish People, but he is unable and unwilling to say that the Jewish religion will not shape and even dominate the public sphere of non-Jews. And there are other practical questions as well: Who should elect the Knesset: Israelis or also world Jews? Should Arab MKs be allowed to vote on matters that relate to the Jewish People? Should Israel’s Minister of Education, Mr. Shay Piron, extend his portfolio to include the curriculum of Jewish schools around the world, and should he be responsible for the curriculum of Israel’s non-Jewish schools? What a conceptual and ethical mess! In other words, if Israelis don’t have the issue figured out, why are we bringing Palestinians and Americans into it? And what exactly are we asking the Palestinians to recognize?
Fourth, Israel’s current demand allows for Abbas to represent Israel’s Arab citizens, which is, in my view, opposite to our national interest. Theoretically, the PLO, being the ‘sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian People,’ is supposed to represent Israel’s Arab citizens. Practically, it has not done so for most of the time since Oslo. The demand for a Palestinian recognition in Israel’s Jewishness pushes Israel’s Arab citizens into the hands of the Palestinian leadership, and Abu-Mazen suddenly becomes their representative. This is simply counterproductive for Israel, whose interest should have been the exact opposite: to frame Abu Mazen as the leader of the Palestinian Authority and future Palestinian state in the West Bank and to confine his leadership to that territory and population.
Fifth, from the perspective of negotiations: this demand is not a real ‘reservation point’ for Israel, i.e. a matter over which disagreement makes the entire deal unacceptable and alternative options become primary course of action. This is evident not just by the fact that there are very serious Israelis across the political spectrum that do not hold this demand to be essential, contrasted by the absolute rejection across the political spectrum of the Palestinian demand for the right of return of Palestinian refugees. Those who believe in the urgent need for ending the control over the Palestinian population as an existential need, this demand is inevitably secondary in significance. In other words, should negotiations fail, such people may support Israeli unilateral disengagement, where Palestinian recognition would not even be an option. The USA understands it, and so do the Palestinians. It is therefore a weak Israeli demand and an easy ‘no’ for them.
Sixth, some people emphasize the historic opportunity to force the Palestinians to explicitly acknowledge their defeat in 1948 and to ‘educate’ Palestinians about the true essence of the State of Israel. Both expectations are simply unrealistic fantasies. Furthermore, they open the door to counter demands of similar logic by the Palestinians. For example, Abbas could ask Israel to recognizes the right of return of Palestinian refugees so that Israelis acknowledge the Palestinian narrative, and frame such acknowledgement as an essential condition for peace. Clearly, such logic does not embody the win-win approach and mutual respect that is essential for an agreement.
Finally, this demand is counterintuitively a-Zionist. Zionism thrived when it pursued its own self-interest without seeking the consent, approval and recognition of Arabs. David Ben-Gurion, for example, always focused on the realization of the right of the Jewish People to self-determination, which is inalienable and therefore cannot be conditioned on external consent. For him, ‘Peace’ was never an essential goal of Zionism, precisely because it required the consent of others, but rather a very nice-to-have. Israel would have never come into being if Zionism had conditioned the service of its acute interests on the consent of Palestinians.
The emerging political deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians is entirely expected, but not inevitable. As some of you may remember, it has been since January 2006 electoral victory of Hamas that Reut has argued that a comprehensive permanent status agreement is no longer feasible due to the institutional breakdown on the Palestinian side. Hence, we anticipated the failure of the Annapolis Process, of the Olmert-Abu-Mazen negotiations and of this John Kerry-led effort. The alternative approach Reut suggested was to pursue the establishment of a Palestinian state in provisional borders, initially in the West Bank, and for shaping ‘permanent status’ on a state-to-state basis (see here for example). The issue of Palestinian representation has been central to that work.
For us at Reut, being in the position of ‘we told you so’ is a bitter-sweet moment: proud of our diagnosis yet falling short in our impact. Since 2006 Reut has held steady to its position, and spoke its truth to Israeli power and to our American friends. Unlike think tanks, which often pride themselves on their published analysis, Reut challenges itself to effective leadership. Our work will only be done when we help move Israel in an alternative, more promising direction.