A major sticking point has arisen in the run-up to the not-much-anticipated Annapolis conference: as a precondition, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is insisting that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. On Monday, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat created a stir when he announced that the Palestinians would do no such thing, arguing that, “no state in the world connects its national identity to a religious identity.”
Naturally, Erekat is wrong. As my contentions colleague Noah Pollak intimated, every country with a cross, crescent, or religious phrase on its national flag, to varying extremes, traces its national identity to religious/cultural roots. Moreover, Israel’s use of the term “Jewish state” hardly connotes theocracy, as Erekat deceptively implies, but rather the state’s ethno-cultural identity. In this vein, former Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Meir Shamgar once compared Israel’s being Jewish to France’s being French.
Yet these rebuttals all seem a little too neat. After all, we don’t find France demanding recognition of its French identity—least of all from its adversaries—as Israel continues to do. Indeed, nobody contests that France is French by virtue of a population that is overwhelmingly French.
Olmert should operate with similar confidence regarding Israel’s ethno-cultural character, which is Jewish by virtue of a population that is mostly Jewish. Of course, in this context, Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” is code for renouncing the “right of return,” by which four million Palestinians would be permitted to repatriate to Israel. But if Olmert wishes to prevent this outcome, he’d be better served dealing in terms that affirm Israel’s sovereignty, rather than subjecting its pre-existent character to Palestinian acquiescence. Sovereignty encompasses the right of a state to secure its borders—and determine who can and cannot enter. When Palestinians are asked to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” they are granted an undue voice in affirming Israel’s internal character—a strike against Israeli sovereignty that Israel bizarrely invites. Israel is a Jewish state, whether or not Erekat admits it.
So long as any Israeli-Palestinian peace process aims to create two sovereign states, Israel’s “Jewish character” must be seen as a matter for Israelis alone to define and determine. For this reason, Olmert would be best served arriving at the Annapolis conference ready to talk about security arrangements and final borders—ones that guarantee total sovereignty for Israelis and Palestinians over their own affairs.