While in Cairo yesterday to meet with Egypt’s new leaders, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas let drop a few remarks about the peace negotiations with Israel that began in Washington last night. As the Times of Israel reports, Abbas left no doubt about what his vision of peace entails:
“In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli — civilian or soldier — on our lands,” Abbas said following a meeting with interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour in Cairo.
The statement provoked little comment in the Western press, and no wonder. Most of the mainstream media has long accepted the Palestinian formulation that sees the presence of Israelis in the West Bank and Jerusalem as the primary obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. From this frame of reference, the peace equation is simple. No Israelis in Palestine means the conflict disappears. Therefore the sole object of peace negotiations is to leverage Israelis out of the areas that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1948 to 1967.
But the problem here is not just that this is an absurd distortion of reality that ignores Jewish rights and security needs. The Abbas statement provides some important context for the key Israeli demand that the Palestinians refuse to accept: PA acknowledgement of the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. If Palestinians think there is something racist about Israel being accepted as the sole Jewish state in the world, why is it OK for them to envision an independent state of their own where Jewish communities would have to be destroyed and their inhabitants be evicted?
Peace processers and Israel’s critics claim this reasoning is nit-picking, but this actually goes to the heart of the problem that Secretary of State John Kerry and his aide Martin Indyk are trying to unravel in the negotiations they have worked so hard to bring about.
The Palestinian position remains that specific acceptance on their part of Israel as a Jewish state would undermine the rights of the Arab minority inside the pre-1967 lines and force them to make a judgment about the country’s internal arrangements. But the whole point of the conflict since its beginnings a century ago has always been the Arab rejection of the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland. If Palestinians are determined to create an independent state where there are no Jews, why then are they so afraid of agreeing that their neighbors will be a Jewish state?
The reason for this is no mystery.
More than any compromise on borders, accepting Israel as a Jewish state would be an open acknowledgement that the conflict is finished. It would mean the descendants of the Palestinian refugees of 1948 would have to be resettled elsewhere and all terrorism and efforts to erase Israel inside its contracted borders would cease.
The demand for recognition of a Jewish state is often represented as something new created by Prime Minister Netanyahu in order to make peace more difficult to achieve. But it should be remembered that the original United Nations partition resolution of 1947 spoke of the country being specifically divided between a Jewish state and an Arab one, not Israel and “Palestine.” The effort to deny the right of the Jewish people to a sovereign state in their own land is an act of prejudice since no other group in the world is treated in this manner.
It is true that in the unlikely event that the Palestinians ever agree to peace on any terms, Israel will be anxious to evacuate any Jews currently living in territory from which they will withdraw. The reason for this is also no puzzle. Any Jews left behind in Arab lands would last as long as the greenhouses left behind in Gaza when Israel left that region in 2005. No one, not even the United States, could guarantee the safety of any Jew—whether a peace-loving leftist or a hard-core right-wing settler—living in a Palestinian state.
But that’s the conundrum of the whole peace process. Even though it is the national state of the Jewish people, religious and ethnic minorities have full rights in Israel. What Abbas is asking for is for Israel to be a bi-national state of Jews and Arabs while Palestine would be a solely Arab nation.
If Palestinian society were ever to evolve to the point where Jews could live in peace under Arab rule, then peace would be possible without any major effort from the secretary of state. So long as Abbas is promising to evict the Jews from Palestine, he has no right to reject Israel’s demand that he recognize that Israel is a Jewish state and that this cannot be reversed by future negotiations, the influx of refugees, or new wars. His refusal to do so will ensure that the talks Kerry has convened will be nine months of wasted effort.