On the face of it, the issue seems simple. Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has been widely known as the “Jewish state” and seen as the nation-state of the Jewish people. So why has Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu been demanding Palestinian recognition of this recently, and why has the Palestinian refusal been so absolute?
The issue itself dates back to 1947, when the United Nations voted to partition British Mandatory lands west of the Jordan into independent Jewish and Arab states. Israel accepted Resolution 181, which led to its international recognition and UN membership; the Arab League rejected it and went to war. Twenty years ago, in the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized “the right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security.” A decade later, the informally negotiated 2003 Geneva Accord (signed by former negotiators after official talks broke down in 2000) affirmed “the recognition of the right of the Jewish people to statehood and the recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to statehood without prejudice to the equal rights of the parties’ respective citizens.”
So it’s easy to see why, in the past several months, cynics have dismissed Mr. Netanyahu’s insistence on this precondition (he’s since softened on this point) as no more than a stalling tactic. But, as with the issue of Iran, the Prime Minister seems to have once more cannily tapped in to a primordial Israeli fear and “mainstreamed” it into firm policy. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert and foreign minister Tzipi Livni raised the same demand in talks during George W. Bush’s second term, but Mr. Netanyahu “owns it” because he repeats it so incessantly.
He seems to have his public’s backing. Critics such as Finance Minister Yair Lapid, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan (and even, some say, President Shimon Peres) argue that Israel doesn’t need further recognition, and have accused Mr. Netanyahu of hindering talks with this “unnecessary” demand. But according to last month’s Tel Aviv University-Israel Democracy Institute Peace Index, close to 80 per cent of Israeli Jews across the political spectrum believe that such Palestinian recognition should be forthcoming as acceptance of the legitimacy of Zionism, the Jewish national movement.
Palestinian objections are consistent. As recently as last week, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas told a delegation of Israeli high-school students that he would never recognize Israel’s national Jewish character. As precedents, Palestinians argue that Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) don’t include a similar clause. But those were purely territorial disputes and didn’t evoke national narratives.
Mr. Abbas argues that it’s for Israel to decide how Jewish it wants to be, and that existing recognition of Israel suffices. But what’s in question isn’t the nature or extent of Israel’s Jewishness; it’s acceptance of the Jewish right to self-determination in a sovereign state – a litmus test, if you will, of the Jewish national claim.
Mr. Abbas says such recognition will adversely affect Israel’s 1.6-million Palestinian citizens, who make up 21 per cent of the population but are unfairly treated in a state with a Jewish majority. But sociologist Sammy Smooha’s regular polling of Palestinian citizens of Israel confirms that while reluctant to accept Israel’s Jewish character, they’d rather remain there as a minority with equal rights than move to a West Bank Palestinian state.
What really underlies Israel’s demand for recognition is parallel rejection of a key Palestinian demand, the right of return for 1948 refugees to their original homes (now in Israel).
Implementation of the right of return spells the end of an Israeli state with a Jewish majority. And if the right of return is forgone, then Jewish national rights are, in fact, accepted. The Palestinian leadership gets this, so it’s holding back on recognition for what might become an ultimate tradeoff – maintaining the right of return in rhetoric while limiting its implementation to Palestine, thereby effectively acknowledging Jewish national rights in Israel proper.
University of Toronto and Oxford University historian Derek Penslar notes that holding on to the demand for recognition is a win-win for Mr. Netanyahu. If Palestinian refusal prevails, he can walk away from the table. If they accept, he has the ultimate weapon against the right of return when the issue comes up.
But this is more than tactical. It’s still motivated by a zero-sum game mentality and deep distrust. Because they cling to a competing claim, Palestinians need to demonstrate that Israelis’ deep-seated fears can be allayed. And for Israel, as long as the issue is eventually dealt with in the final-status agreement, it needn’t be a precondition for continuing talks that are essential to its future.