When Benjamin Netanyahu gave his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, becoming the fourth Israeli prime minister in a row to support a two-state solution, he set forth two conditions: that a Palestinian state be demilitarized and that it recognize Israel as the Jewish state.
In one sense, Netanyahu’s position simply expressed an obvious condition for a two-state solution: it makes no sense to create a state for the Palestinian people if it will not recognize Israel as the state for the Jewish one. But Netanyahu’s position was viewed by many as introducing a new condition not demanded in prior negotiations — perhaps brought forward precisely to preclude new negotiations or as an obstacle to the success of such negotiations if they got started.
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy has released a comprehensive paper by Tal Becker, a former Israeli lead negotiator in the 2007-08 Annapolis Process, entitled “The Claim for Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State: A Reassessment.” It is an extraordinarily thoughtful discussion of the historical, political, and strategic considerations in the recognition claim.
One of the points the study makes clear is that Netanyahu’s position was new only because it was responding to something that was also new: the rising level of criticism of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state, which was previously so obvious that no explicit assertion was necessary:
Israeli leaders and the mainstream Israeli public perceive calls for a binational state, criticism of Israel as a “racist” or an “apartheid” entity, the demand for a right of return for Palestinian refugees, and demographic trends a direct threat to the Zionist enterprise … The Israeli establishment has responded by seeking renewed public recognition and international legitimacy for Jewish statehood, if not in isolation, then at least in the context of establishing a Palestinian state. …
This is not a new demand. It is a reaction to the sense that what was once largely self-evident is now under threat. … In this context, bolstering support for the continuing moral, legal, and political validity of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination has acquired significance with Israel not merely as an aspiration, but as a component of the national defense.
Here is how self-evident Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state once was: the 1947 UN Resolution endorsing the partition of Palestine mentioned the term “Jewish state” no fewer than 30 times. More than 63 years later, even the “peace partner” is willing only to let Israel call itself whatever it wants but not to recognize its legitimacy as a Jewish state — not even as part of a “peace agreement” that would give its own people a state.