In her “Memo from Jerusalem” in the New York Times, Jodi Rudoren asserts that “in recent weeks,” Benjamin Netanyahu has “catapulted to the fore” an issue “even more intractable than old ones like security and settlements: a demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.” She reported it is now a “core issue” in the current negotiations and that “critics” say Netanyahu raised it as a poison pill:
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has repeatedly said that the Palestinians will never agree to it, most recently in a letter to President Obama last month. The Palestinians … contend that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would disenfranchise its 1.6 million Arab citizens, undercut the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees and, most important, require a psychological rewriting of the story they hold dear about their longtime presence in the land.
The issue, however, was not recently “catapulted to the fore” by Netanyahu; it is an issue that long pre-dates him; and it goes to the heart of whether the “peace process” is about peace. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane, picking up the story with the internal 2007 Palestinian memorandum entitled “Strategy and Talking Points for Responding to the Precondition of Recognizing Israel as a ‘Jewish State’,” leaked in the “Palestine Papers.” The memo contained the following instruction for Palestinian negotiators:
We recommend that the Palestinian negotiators maintain their position not to recognize or otherwise characterize the state of Israel as “Jewish”. Any recognition of Israel within a treaty or agreement should be limited to recognizing it as a sovereign state. It should not recognize Israel as a “Jewish state”, “state for the Jewish people”, “homeland for the Jewish people” or any similar characterization.
The reasons in the memo did not include “the story [the Palestinians] hold dear about their longtime presence in the land.” Rather, the memo warned that “[r]ecognizing the Jewish state implies recognition of a Jewish people and recognition of its right to self-determination.” The Palestinians did not want to recognize a Jewish people, a Jewish state, a Jewish homeland, Jewish self-determination, or any Jewish demographic considerations.
Netanyahu assumed office on March 31, 2009 and began preparations for his May meeting with President Obama. On May 3, 2009, Netanyahu’s senior advisor, Ron Dermer (currently Israel’s U.S. ambassador), spoke at the AIPAC Policy Conference, setting forth Israel’s position (see the videos here and here). He identified the “core issue” preventing peace:
The half of the Palestinian polity that is not openly dedicated to Israel’s destruction [as Hamas is] are unwilling to recognize Israel as the Jewish state. … For those of you think that this has anything to do with the refugee issue — you’re wrong. In 1947, there wasn’t a single refugee, and the Palestinian and the Arab world was not willing to recognize a nation state for the Jewish people. That is a core issue, the core issue …
In their May 18, 2009 press conference, Obama and Netanyahu both referenced Israel as a Jewish state. Obama affirmed “[i]t is in U.S. national security interests to assure that Israel’s security as an independent Jewish state is maintained.” Netanyahu said that for there really to be an “end to the conflict,” the Palestinians “will have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.” He explained why in his June 14, 2009 Bar-Ilan speech:
Many good people have told us that withdrawal from territories is the key to peace with the Palestinians. Well, we withdrew. But the fact is that every withdrawal was met with massive waves of terror, by suicide bombers and thousands of missiles. … [T]o our regret, Palestinian moderates are not yet ready to say the simple words: Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and it will stay that way. … Therefore, a fundamental prerequisite for ending the conflict is a public, binding and unequivocal Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.
In his 2010 appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations, Netanyahu called on Abbas to give a Bir Zeit speech, to affirm the Palestinians would recognize a Jewish state if Israel recognized a Palestinian one:
They have to openly say it, not for our sake but for the sake of actually persuading their people to make the great psychological change for peace. I’ve said it. I’ve stood before my people and before my constituency and I said what my vision of peace includes, and I did that not without some consequence … But this is what leaders have to do. They have to educate their people.
In 2011, Tal Becker, a lead Israeli negotiator in the year-long Annapolis Process in 2007-08, published “The Claim for Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State,” under the auspices of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explaining that recognition of a Jewish state is the natural counterpart to recognition of a Palestinian one:
This is not a new demand. It is a reaction to the sense that what was once largely self-evident is now under threat. Israel’s leaders increasingly view the erosion of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish nation-state as a challenge not just to national identity, but to national security. … [T]he physical threat posed by Israel’s regional enemies has been compounded by an assault on its raison d’etre as a Jewish homeland … In this context, [demanding recognition of] the Jewish people’s right to self-determination has acquired significance within Israel … as a component of the national defense.
The premise of the “two-state solution” is “two states for two peoples” (another phrase no Palestinian leader will utter). But if the Palestinians won’t recognize a Jewish state, what they have in mind is not a solution but a two-stage plan, in which the Palestinians first gain a sovereign state and then prosecute their “right of return” to the other one–the one whose status as a Jewish state they never conceded. They seek not an end of the conflict, but a chess move in a bigger game.
A “psychological rewriting”–to use Rudoren’s quaint phrase–is precisely what peace requires, but it has nothing to do with “the story [the Palestinians] hold dear.” It has to do with their longstanding objective since 1947. They want a state, but not if it requires that they recognize a Jewish one. In today’s Jerusalem Post, Khaled Abu Toameh reports that Palestinian sources have told the Palestinian daily Al-Quds that the “most dangerous” part of Secretary of State Kerry’s proposed “framework” is Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognize it as a Jewish state. One can see why: if the Palestinians accepted it, they would have to end the conflict.