“Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, where the civil rights of all citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, are guaranteed,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a speech in Washington earlier this month. “The land of Israel is the place where the identity of the Jewish people was forged…We never forget that, but it’s time the Palestinians stopped denying history.”
He went on to make his demand in no uncertain terms: “Just as Israel is prepared to recognize a Palestinian state, the Palestinians must be prepared to recognize a Jewish state.”
It throws a new stumbling block into a peace process that was already struggling to overcome the long-term sticking points of security, borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the plight of refugees. Many observers have suggested that Netanyahu, by making a demand he knows to be impossible, is attempting to paint the Palestinians as intransigent and deflect growing international pressure to reach a peace agreement.
Recognising the right of Israel to exist is not the same as recognizing Israel’s right to be a Jewish state. Netanyahu’s demand is untenable for Palestinian leaders because of the political implications. Accepting Israel’s definition of itself as a Jewish state would be to indirectly forgo the right of return for at least five million Palestinian refugees. (In his speech, Netanyahu advised Abbas to tell “Palestinians to abandon their fantasy of flooding Israel with refugees”).
It would also tacitly accept that Israeli Arabs have less right to citizenship or less stake in the state. And, indeed, it would be to accept Israel’s argument that biblical history gives them the right to the land. This strikes at the very heart of the conflict: Palestinians maintain that the events of the Bible do not override the thousands of years that they inhabited the land. Palestinian leaders have compromised a lot, but it is unlikely that they will concede that their version of history is incorrect. “This is like telling the Palestinians they did not exist all these hundreds and thousands of years, that this historically has been a Jewish land,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
Not everyone in the Israeli political establishment agrees with this piece of political manoeuvring by Netanyahu. Israeli president Shimon Peres has queried the wisdom of the stipulation, while Yair Lapid, Finance Minister and leader of the second-largest coalition party, has also challenged it.
Writing in Haaretz, the newspaper’s former editor, David Landau points out that many Jews in Israel and elsewhere do not agree with Netanyahu’s “imperious” version of Zionism, nor the decision to try to force Palestinians to agree with it. “Regarding the present Israeli-Palestinian impasse, many Israelis and Palestinians believe that Netanyahu’s broaching of the ‘Jewish state’ issue was intended deliberately to slow the negotiations or thwart an agreement,” he writes.
This recent push is not the first time that Netanyahu has made the demand that Palestine recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He made similar statements in Washington in 2011. Then, as now, US officials largely supported him.
Historically, though, this has not been a major issue in peace negotiations. The requirement was – in the words of UN resolution 242 – for Palestine to recognize “Israel’s right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force”, which the PLO did in 1993. The idea that the Palestinian leadership should formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state was raised at the Annapolis Conference in 2007, and even George W Bush – a staunch defender of Israel – did not adopt it, referring to Israel in his speech as “a homeland for the Jewish people”.
Yet by 2011, Netanyahu was telling Congress: “It is time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say… ‘I will accept a Jewish state.’ Those six words will change history.” This is despite the fact that the issue was not raised during Israel’s peace negotiations with Egypt and Jordan, nor indeed at all during Netanyahu’s first term in office.
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine in 2011, Hussein Ibish pointed out that it is a strange demand, even apart from the political connotations: “The idea that a state – or in this case a potential state – should participate in defining the national character of another is highly unusual, if not unique, in international relations. The Palestinian position, stated many times by President Mahmoud Abbas, is that the PLO recognizes Israel, and that Israel is free to define itself however it chooses.”
Given this context, the suggestion of Landau (and many others) that Netanyahu is cynically playing for time and attempting to shift the emphasis of discussion – and deflect growing international pressure to reach a deal – seems highly plausible.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.