There are those who believe that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has raised his demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people only to serve as an obstacle to real negotiations. I tend to believe Netanyahu that his demand is substantive and strategic in his understanding of what real peace means for Israel.
The international campaign to delegitimize Israel and its right to exist that is supported by the Palestinian national movement adds weight to Netanyahu’s demand. As an Israeli Jewish nationalist, I don’t share Netanyahu’s belief that Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish nation-state is necessary. I accept the statement by Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat that “we recognized Israel, you define who you are!” I don’t need the Palestinians to define the Jewish character of the state of Israel nor for that matter the character of any other state to tell me who I am. The problem is that once the Jewish state issue has been raised, there is almost no way to get around it that will support peace other than Palestinian agreement.
So far, Palestinian responses have been mostly damaging to the cause of peace. Statements by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and other Palestinian leaders that they will never recognize Israel as the Jewish nation-state have only reinforced the conviction of the already large majority of Israelis who don’t believe that peace with the Palestinians is possible. In a recent interview with Oded Granot on Israel Broadcasting’s Channel One, Abu Mazen said, “We recognized Israel in 1993, we don’t care if they define themselves as Chinese, we recognize Israel.” For the same cost he could have said, “We recognized Israel in 1993, we don’t care if they define themselves as the Jewish nation-state.” But he didn’t.
While I don’t support Abu Mazen’s position, I do understand him. Israel never demanded this kind of recognition from anyone else–not from Egypt or Jordan and not even from the United States. If the Palestinians recognize Israel, then as the Palestinians understand it they will be agreeing to remove the issue of refugee rights even before the negotiations begin; surely Israel cannot expect them to do so.
And, in the Palestinian understanding, recognizing Israel as the Jewish nation-state calls into question the rights of the more than one million Palestinian citizens of Israel. The Israeli demand does not say: recognize Israel as the Jewish nation-state and the state of all its citizens. How could Netanyahu expect the leaders of the Palestinian national movement to singlehandedly disenfranchise more than a million of their brothers and sisters?
From many hours of discussions I have had with Palestinians on this subject, I know that they misunderstand the basic demand and what lies beneath it. Palestinians (and perhaps most other non-Jews) believe that the demand to recognize Israel as a “Jewish” state refers to its religious character. This confusion emanates from the complexity of Jewish identity itself and from the way that many Israelis, politicians and journalists refer to the Israeli demand–recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, and not as the Jewish nation-state or the nation-state of the Jewish people, as Netanyahu emphasizes. It is true that the United Nations partition resolution of 1947 speaks about a Jewish state and an Arab state, but the reference in those days to a “Jewish state” was precisely to its nation-state characteristic and not to religion. I do not want a “Jewish state” in the religious meaning. I am not interested in a Jewish theocracy. In fact, I am very secular and even an atheist. But I am very Jewish. I don’t blame the Palestinians for the difficulty in understanding what a Jewish state means.
Palestinians also believe that the Israeli demand is the precursor to adopting a policy that would transfer the Palestinian citizens out of Israel. There is no doubt that with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman serving as a senior coalition partner, and following a recent UN speech in which he presented his party’s platform to the world in the name of the Israeli government yet was not fired by Netanyahu upon his return from New York, it is difficult to dispel Palestinian fears of transfer.
But I have to say here that I believe Palestinians misinterpret the Israeli demand on this issue as well. Palestinians most often say: how can we accept Israel as a purely Jewish state? Yet Netanyahu and other Israelis who raise this issue have never spoken about a “purely Jewish state”. There are no pure ethnic states anywhere. National minorities are an inescapable reality of every nation-state, Israel as well.
I think that the best way out of this difficult quagmire is to adopt the idea of a “deposit”. Back in the early 1990s, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin entrusted US Secretary of State Warren Christopher with a policy deposit regarding the Golan Heights that Christopher could use with the Syrians in order to break the deadlock over pre-negotiation demands. Basically, Rabin said that if the Syrians satisfy all of Israel’s security needs and requirements on the issues of normalization of relations, Israel would be willing to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights.
Abu Mazen could also state, “The Palestinians will be prepared to recognize Israel as the Jewish nation-state when the Palestinian state has been established, the Israeli occupation has ended, there are guarantees in place for the rights of the Palestinian national minority in Israel and there is an agreed solution to the refugee problem.” By putting the deposit up front, both sides would be able to remove the issue from the agenda and the negotiations could move forward without Israelis claiming that there is no Palestinian partner for real peace.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.