Israeli understanding of the Jewishness of Israel is complex, and it makes the right of return the most contentious issue on the negotiating agenda
The demand of Prime Minister Netanyahu to the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people is perceived by many of the few people left in the Israeli peace camp to be simply another precondition for negotiations aimed at preventing negotiations. Unfortunately, the Palestinians have fallen into Netanyahu’s trap and rather than understanding it is a trap have helped to further deepen the Israeli narrative that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. The Palestinians are not entirely at fault for failing to properly understand what is being demanded. And to a large extent the Israeli demand is indeed a quite transparent attempt to pre-emptively remove the most contentious issue on the negotiating agenda – the refugee problem. Former Israeli chief negotiator and Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, issued a similar demand to the Palestinians prior to the Annapolis summit in November 2007. One of the reasons why there was no joint statement (other than the one read by President Bush) was Livni’s demand to the Palestinians that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The question of the Jewishness of Israel is one that is quite complex and misunderstood. By calling Israel a “Jewish State” as it is referred to in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and in UN Resolution 181 which partitioned Palestine into two states “one Jew and one Arab” does not define if Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people or a state with a state religion which defines its essence. Netanyahu has, on the other hand, used the expression “the state of the Jewish people” or even “the nation-state of the Jewish people”.
Zionism, from its outset, was a secular revolution against the limitations of defining Jewish people in solely religious terms. Under the shadow of emerging national movements all over Europe following the emancipation brought on by the French Revolution, young Jewish intellectuals found that they were excluded from the national movements of the countries where they lived. Seeking to be part of the new trend of organizing identities based on historical links to particular territories Zionism was born to give expression to Jews who also wanted a sense of belonging and national pride. Imbued with a strong sense that Jews had been victims for too long to the whims of others, they decided to take their fate into their own hands and to determine their future by themselves, rather than having others continue to write their history.
Jews turned inwards to their heritage and their roots which they found in the Holy Scriptures and understood that it was time to return to their historic homeland. The Zionist movement then sought to provide a culture and a narrative based on secular nationalism and emancipation from religious rituals, traditions and law. The Zionist movement as such, with the exception of the later born and minority stream of religious Zionism defined the Jews as a nation, a people, a culture and a heritage stating that just as France is French, Israel is Jewish.
Since the birth of the State of Israel, and as expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the founders of the State and all of the Government of Israel since have never stated either a desire or a political plan to make Israel a unitary national or religious state for Jews only. This is one of the arguments used by the Palestinians to negate the Israeli demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state or as the nation state of the Jewish people. Mr. Netanyahu has never suggested or even dreamed of the way to deny 20% of Israel’s citizens their rights as citizens within the State. With the exception of small extremist parties, such as Kahana’s Kach party which was made illegal under Israel law, Zionist parties have come to terms with a Palestinian minority in Israel. Israelis politics has not come to terms with defining the Palestinian citizens in Israel as a “national minority” but nonetheless, there is not even the slightest intention of exploiting a possible Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state in order to expel the Palestinian citizens of Israel. If Palestinians wish to argue against recognizing Israel as a state of the Jewish people or as a Jewish state, the claim of a “solely Jewish state” is the weakest argument and has no real basis in reality.
Both Israelis and Palestinians feel that there is no real partner for peace on the other side. The Palestinian election of Hamas and the continued bombardment of Israel from Gaza following the Israeli disengagement signaled to the Israeli public that the Palestinians are not interested in living in peace with Israel. Palestinian understanding of the contrary is not translated into a clear message that ordinary Israelis understand. Everyday Israelis are shown by the media and by various right-wing NGO’s “evidence” that Palestinians are not willing to live in peace with Israel. Whether it be clips from Hamas television in Gaza, or problematic excerpts from Palestinian textbooks, or the latest Israeli narrative that once again the Israeli Prime Minister (Olmert this time) offered President Abbas 100% of the territory, Muslim sovereignty over al-Haram al Sharif and even recognition of the principle of the right of return (and a limited number of returnees), Abbas, according to the Israelis, rejected the offer and didn’t even bother to respond by making a counter offer or explaining why he rejected such a “generous offer”. It is no wonder that there is no peace camp in Israel! (All of the same kind of claims could be made that “prove” to the Palestinians that Israel is also not a partner – whether it be the war in the Lebanon, the Gaza war, the building of settlements, the wall, arrests and imprisonment of thousands of Palestinians, etc. etc.).
Objectively speaking there are no real reasons why Palestinians and Israelis should trust each other. They have systematically worked overtime to earn the lack of mutual trust. This is why seemingly non-essential demands, such as recognition of Israel as the Jewish homeland have become so essential. The essence of the Israeli demand is centered on the refugee issue. It is quite true that the major sense of an existential threat from Palestinians today is not the qassam rockets or even suicide bombers, but the “demographic bomb” best expressed by the Palestinian right of return. Nothing would endanger the Jewishness of Israel more than the possibility of a Palestinian majority or even a significantly larger Palestinian minority. That is why Ariel Sharon acted so incongruously regarding Gaza from everything that he had done previously. That is also what motivated Olmert to go beyond Barak at Taba. But, from the Israeli perspective the key to any agreement with the Palestinians is reaching an agreement that the right of return will be implemented in the Palestinian state, and not in Israel and that the peace deal will be final and will end all claims forever.
There will be no permanent status agreement at any time in the foreseeable future without this principle being implemented. In practical terms the Palestinians already accepted (albeit reluctantly) Israel as a Jewish State. The Palestinian nation poet Mahmoud Darwish put it into the Palestinian Declaration of Independence which President Yasser Arafat read at the Palestinian National Council meeting in Algiers in November 1988. Palestinian leaders, with the exception of Sari Nusseibeh, have never said in public what they often say in private, that they are aware that there will be no real return of refugees to Israel. Palestinian leaders continue to lie to their people in public speeches and in writing that they should “hold onto their keys” and that they will return to their homes that they left in Jaffa, Ramle, Lod and other places. Palestinians have not dealt with the fact that their text books present maps that show these cities as part of Palestine and not part of Israel. What is the reader supposed to understand from this? What are the real Palestinian intentions?
I believe that the Palestinian leadership recognizes that there will not be a real return of refugees to Palestine. I believe that a majority of Palestinians know this as well. But in their heart of hearts they have not yet come to terms with this. It must be understood that there is a fundamental clash and contradiction between the acceptance of the “two-states for two-people” solution to the conflict and the right of return. It is legitimate to reject the two state solution because of this and I recognize that most of the “one-staters” support that position because of their intellectual integrity in this regard. It is not legitimate, in my mind, to support the two-state solution and the right of return. This lacks intellectual integrity.
Palestinians did get the short end of the stick. They wanted 100% of Palestine, they were offered less than 50% in 1949 and today they are being asked to settle for 22%. Palestinians are not only victims in this reality – they share part of the responsibility for their fate as well. Israel too shares a significant part of the responsibility for the plight and suffering of the Palestinians and both sides will have to confront and acknowledge their respective responsibilities.
Palestinian refugees are the only refugees in the world who enjoy a multi-generational status by international law. They are the only refugees who enjoy a dedicated UN body to look after their needs. Why, after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority did UNRWA have to continue to function in the territories under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Why do these refugees need their own school systems or health system separate from the system established and run by the Palestinian Authority? Why hasn’t the Palestinian Authority and the international community worked to integrate these Palestinians into the fabric of normal Palestinian authority. One of every two Palestinians in the occupied territories is defined as a refugee. I can understand why the individual refugee seeks to maintain his or her refugee status – it awards benefits – housing support, loans, food assistance, education, health, etc. But what is the real justification for keeping this separate system alive? Is it not to sustain the conflict and to keep the myth alive that they will one day “go home”?
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.