Yesterday, David Hazony argued that in refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, the Palestinians were reserving a “pretext for future violence”:
It is not too hard to imagine that the Palestinian state would see itself as the champion of the rights of Israeli Arabs, who would now be depicted as oppressed under Israel’s ‘apartheid’ rule, giving all those anti-Israel forces around the world … something new to hate Israel for. But all this depends on the PA’s refusing to accept the very idea of a Jewish state – the very idea, that is, of Israel itself.
This may be true. But whether or not the Palestinians are sincere in their desire for peace, the very structure of negotiations makes it very unlikely that the Palestinians would ever recognize Israel’s Jewish character. After all, in negotiations with Israel, the Palestinians are represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization — and not by the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, despite the fact that Mahmoud Abbas heads both bodies, the PA and PLO represent different constituencies — with vastly different interests.
In this vein, the PA governs Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, whose interests include economic development, freedom of movement, and sovereignty. While many within the PA’s constituency oppose Israel’s existence — e.g., those who voted for Hamas — it is possible to construct policy such that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state within the context of a two-state solution becomes a matter of Palestinian national interest. Indeed, so long as PA leaders can be convinced that Israel’s domestic character does not infringe on Palestinian development and sovereignty, there is no non-ideological reason for the PA to care whether or not Israel is a Jewish state, as David correctly noted.
Alternatively, the PLO claims to represent all Palestinians worldwide, and its interests acutely reflect this difference. For example, insofar as it is internationally recognized as representing Palestinians in Lebanese, Jordanian, and Syrian refugee camps, the PLO stands to lose a great deal of its legitimacy by negotiating away the so-called “right to return.” Similarly, insofar as it claims to represent Israeli-Arabs, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would mean disassociating itself from approximately 10-15% of its declared constituency — something that a rationally behaving political entity is unlikely to do.
For this reason, I disagree with David’s claim that the Obama administration has “fallen into Abbas’s trap” by conceding that Palestinians need not recognize Israel as a Jewish state. If anything, the administration is operating realistically — i.e., with a clear understanding of the PLO’s institutionally derived bright lines. Apparently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is working under the same understanding: as David noted, Netanyahu has dropped the Palestinians’ recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for talks. Of course, none of this suggests that peace is nigh. Still, insofar as peacemaking has long been the enterprise of romanticizing policymakers, this sudden cool-headedness might be a welcome development.