The election of Binyamin Netanyahu marked a new, intransigent phase in the recent history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not that the period before provided any serious opportunities for peacemaking. Even then, however, Netanyahu has managed to add to the burden of making peace by creating two new additional obstacles.
First he has skirted, so far, any clear commitment to the principle of two states as the basic framework for a solution to the conflict even though this is the position of not only most Palestinians and Israelis but of the international community.
The second is his demand that the Palestinians accept to recognize Israel as a Jewish state before peace negotiations can proceed, or before any progress in such negotiations can be made.
While the first problem is being taken care of mainly by the United States, where there seems to be strong pressure on the new Israeli government to renew Israel's commitment to a two-state solution, international players are conspicuous in their silence on Netanyahu's second obstacle.
Palestinians and Arabs have three major problems with the Israeli demand to be recognized as a Jewish state. The first is that such recognition will undermine and further marginalize the position of the non-Jewish minorities in Israel, especially the Palestinian minority, which constitutes 20 percent of the population, but also of what appears to be a significant Christian minority among recent Russian immigrants.
With the election of Avigdor Lieberman and his party, which publicly promotes ridding Israel of most its Palestinian minority, this is an acute problem. But such fears are also valid in light of the long history of official Israeli discrimination against the Palestinian minority since the establishment of the state in 1948.
The second problem is that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state will augment the Israeli position against Palestinian refugees' right of return to the lands and homes from which they were systematically and violently ejected in 1948.
By accepting the Oslo accords, Israel agreed that the right of return was one of four negotiable final status issues. But Israel is holding up the right of return as a deal breaker, saying that implementing this right would threaten the existence of Israel. This is simply unfounded. Palestinians and Arabs have extended a firm offer of recognition of the state of Israel, as evidenced by the Arab Peace Initiative. Furthermore, a change in the ethnic composition of any state, including Israel, does not threaten its existence as a state of all its people.
The third problem with the concept of the Jewish state is that it's seen by many people, including Palestinians and Arabs, to be a racist concept that contradicts the modern notion of democratic political systems based on the equal and basic rights of all citizens of the state, regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations.
It would appear that Netanyahu is raising this condition now in order to throw a spanner in the works of the political process that the new US administration is apparently serious about restarting. It is an international as well as Palestinian responsibility to resist such an effort.
The definition of the nature of the state of Israel is ultimately an Israeli decision to make. It is not one that should be imposed on others, nor should it provide an avenue for Israel to escape its obligations under international law. Those obligations include ending the occupation, allowing for the creation of an independent Palestinian state and adhering to internationally acknowledged refugee rights.
None of that should jeopardize the existence of the state of Israel.- Published 4/5/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Palestinians will have to find a formula
by Yossi Alpher
The "Jewish state" controversy returned to the headlines a couple of weeks ago. In the course of the first meeting between US emissary George Mitchell and PM Binyamin Netanyahu, both invoked the term. Netanyahu stated that Israel would not enter negotiations over creation of a Palestinian state until and unless the Palestinians declared they recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Mitchell presented the vision of Israel as a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state as the end-product of two-state negotiations.
Since then, Netanyahu has softened his stance and lined up behind Mitchell's assertion. He now declares that it would be difficult to conclude (rather than commence) negotiations successfully without Palestinian acknowledgement of Israel's Jewish identity. Meanwhile both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat have declared that the PLO will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state and that this is not a Palestinian obligation.
So the "Jewish state" issue is not an immediate obstacle to renewing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over a two-state solution. But it won't go away. And Mitchell's statement appears to guarantee ultimate US support for the Jewish state demand.
One aspect of the controversy is as old as Zionism, which asserts that the Jews are a people deserving of sovereignty in their ancient homeland. There are still plenty of Christians and Muslims in the world, and even a few Jews, who insist that Judaism is no more than a religion, not a people. Nor has the state of Israel, after 61 years of sovereign independence, yet successfully defined for itself the Jewish substance of the Jewish state, e.g., the balance between religious and secular components of Judaism or the status of non-Jewish minorities in a Jewish state.
Yet Israel's claim to be a Jewish state is ironclad. The term first appears in UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, the founding document of the two-state solution. It calls for the creation of "Arab and Jewish states" in Mandatory Palestine. Accordingly, Israel's Declaration of Independence of 1948 incorporated the term "Jewish state" in order to signal that the new state conformed to the will of the United Nations. In this context, PLO acceptance back in 1988 of a two-state solution based on 181 embodies Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
It was the most determined attempt thus far to solve the Palestinian issue, culminating at Camp David in July 2000, that reintroduced controversy over the term. The Israeli polity emerged from that abortive experience convinced that at least some Palestinian advocates of a two-state solution, led by Yasser Arafat, envisioned it very differently than Israelis. Arafat was suspected of seeking a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside a state of Israel that, through the natural growth of the Israeli Arab population coupled with the return of 1948 refugees and illegal migration of Palestinians, would soon become a bi-national state and would eventually be thoroughly "Palestinized".
In the post-Camp David years, Israelis focused in particular on Arafat's emphatic demand that Israel acknowledge the "right of return" of the refugees--thereby seemingly acknowledging that it was "born in sin" in 1948, hence was illegitimate--along with his refusal to recognize Israel's demand that a final status agreement reflect the Jewish historic and religious heritage of the Temple Mount (Arafat: "There never was a Jewish temple on the 'Temple Mount'"). These sentiments and demands were understood as reflecting a broader Arab refusal to accept the Jews as a people with legitimate national rights and roots in the Middle East. While Israel was successful in ending its conflict with two neighboring Arab states without delving too deeply into these issues, it cannot ignore them in negotiating an end-of-conflict agreement with the PLO, lest this leave open the door to further claims upon Israel and de-legitimization of its basic character.
It was Tzipi Livni, then a junior minister in the Sharon government, who several years ago refined this thinking into a new formula for addressing the right of return issue. Harking back to 181, Livni argued that the Palestinian demand for the return of refugees must be confined to return to the Palestinian state and not Israel, lest it contradict the "Jewish state" provision of 181 that the PLO had recognized.
Erekat, incidentally, was wrong when he argued that back in 1948 even the US had refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state by striking that expression from the original American draft declaration of recognition. President Harry Truman's aides, waiting to be informed of the name of the new state, took the term "Jewish state" directly from 181, then crossed it out at the last minute when informed that "State of Israel" had been decided on by the Jewish leadership in Palestine. Nowhere was this intended to imply that the US somehow rejected Israel as a Jewish state.
The most disturbing aspect of this controversy is that both sides "protest too much" and appear to be manipulating the Jewish state issue to avoid a serious attempt at agreement. When Abbas and Erekat seemingly reject the heart of the Israeli identity before negotiations have even begun, they risk signaling Israelis that it's not worth the negotiating effort. Ultimately, if they don't recognize Israel as a Jewish state yet want Israel to accept a final status agreement that puts all claims to rest, Palestinians will have to find some persuasive formula for reassuring Israel that they acknowledge the Jewish national link to the Land of Israel and do not view a two-state agreement as a vehicle for eventually undermining Israel's Jewish nature.
On the other hand, Netanyahu has plenty of time to submit his Jewish state request once he has successfully negotiated everything else. Nor should Israel really require the explicit affirmation or involvement of its neighbors in determining its national nature. This is indeed a task for Israelis.- Published 4/5/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Israel is on a dangerous path
an interview with Eyad Sarraj
bitterlemons: What do you make of the Israeli demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state?
Sarraj: I agree that Jews have rights in the Holy Land. But I don't think this religious condition for the Jewishness of the state is conducive to any hope for peace and reconciliation. On the contrary, it will further strengthen the antagonism and enmity between Jews and non-Jews in the area.
We have seen an extremist Islamist reaction, not only in Palestine but elsewhere, to the establishment of Israel and the occupation. Israel's insistence on having a Jewish state, denying non-Jews their equal citizenship and rights, is a form of racism that can only lead to a future of violence and more discrimination.
Israel is going down a path that is very dangerous, the same route as South Africa, of institutionalized racism and discrimination. But at the end of the day, it gives Palestinians and those who believe in human rights and justice in Israel and elsewhere more ammunition. Maybe we should thank the Israeli government for this. It may galvanize those opposed to racism to begin organizing a proper economic, academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
bitterlemons: Why did Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu come out with this condition now?
Sarraj: I think Netanyahu is just being true to himself. He believes that Jews have exclusive rights in Palestine. He never accepted the idea of any other state between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean. He never believed in ending the settlement project in the West Bank. And he never accepted any rights for non-Jews in Jerusalem.
Now he is also armed with [Israeli foreign minister Avigdor] Lieberman, who is advocating that Palestinian citizens of Israel should leave. That fits well into Netanyahu's ideology.
bitterlemons: Is Israel growing more intolerant?
Sarraj: Israel is becoming xenophobic and is on a dangerous road to apartheid.
bitterlemons: Some argue that Netanyahu stipulated this condition, simply as a way to head off apparent American pressure to engage in a serious peace process. Do you think there's some truth in that?
Sarraj: I think the tactic to divert the US is about Iran, that Iran is the threat to Middle East peace, not the settlements, not the Judaization of Jerusalem, not the ethnic cleansing, not the lack of recognition of a Palestinian state. Lieberman is going to Europe now to say that it is Iran that is the problem.
I think this tactic is a failure from the start. But I think that Netanyahu and Lieberman are just being true to themselves. Of course they will try to bargain with the US, that if the US deals with Iran, then Israel will give Washington some space in a peace process. Yet at the end of the day, I think Netanyahu and Lieberman, like Shamir, simply want to negotiate with the Palestinians forever without giving them anything.
Netanyahu wants time to pursue four projects at the same time: one is the Judaization of Jerusalem, which will not stop unless there is serious outside pressure. Then there is the continued colonization of the West Bank. Third, is to leave Gaza out of the whole equation and make it an Egyptian problem. Finally, is ethnic cleansing, to rid Israel of its non-Jews.
I think the Americans have realized that there is something wrong here. Hopefully Washington can stop all these projects before they lead to another war, which is very possible.
bitterlemons: PA President Mahmoud Abbas rejected Netanyahu's condition. Do you see any sign that such Israeli positions can unite the Palestinian side?
Sarraj: I think the Palestinians have proven to be their own worst enemies in so many ways over the years. The Israelis united the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 with the occupation. I don't think they will unite us again. For now, unity is a distant second priority to the power struggle between Hamas and Abbas.- Published 4/5/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Eyad Sarraj is a political commentator and the chairman of the board of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
by Yisrael Harel
On the eve of Israel's sixty-first Independence Day last week, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas declared: we do not recognize Israel as a Jewish state or in any other form. None of the Israelis who have been maintaining contact with Abbas over the years expressed disappointment or, God forbid, criticism. For years they have smothered him with a thick layer of immunity. He can write whatever he wants against Israel or the Jews and even deny the Holocaust and negate Israel's existence; he will always be the "partner for peace", the moderate with whom we negotiate a peace agreement based on reciprocal recognition between the two peoples.
I remember the harsh reactions I encountered when I reported that in his doctoral dissertation--his doctoral dissertation!--Mahmoud Abbas denied none other than the Holocaust. Most of the Israeli media chose to ignore the issue; a few chose to attack me for publishing this fact because I am anti-peace. I had hurt their man, their "peace partner". A week ago as well, none of the Israelis with links to Abbas had the intellectual honesty to ask themselves if it is not totally natural that the man who labored for years on a doctoral thesis that denies the Holocaust would of necessity deny the existence of the Jewish people and its right to a national home and state.
About a year ago, in a previous round of debate over Palestinian "recognition" of Israel as a Jewish state, President Shimon Peres spoke out against those who demand recognition: Who needs their recognition? Israel's existence does not depend on their recognition or non-recognition. Ostensibly this statement testifies to national pride. In fact this is an exercise in self-delusion at the level of both principle and strategy.
Morally and on grounds of principle the state of Israel, the state of one of the oldest peoples on earth, does not require recognition on the part of any other people. It certainly does not need to be recognized by a people that only recently came into existence and that is still in the early phases of its formation, hence is emerging as a people hesitantly, in a bloody reality; a people that is itself conflicted as to the identity and sovereignty it wants and what it has to do to achieve them. Israel existed and even flowered when all the Arab countries were its enemies; officially, most are still in a state of war with it. Israel can certainly exist without the recognition of an internally-conflicted Palestinian entity that is being weakened if not paralyzed for generations to come by a growing fundamentalist element.
What the peace camp in Israel and beyond does not understand--or perhaps does not want to understand--is that non-recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people pulls the rug out from under the slogan the entire world recites: "two states for two peoples". If the Jews are not a people and have no right to a national home, then there will never be peace between the two peoples and there will never be two states.
Once again, the big losers will be the Palestinians. Israelis will continue their dynamic march toward closing off the geographic option for two states, which is indeed already fairly closed. Hence anyone aspiring to establish a Palestinian state--a goal for which many Israelis genuinely lay down their lives--must concentrate their efforts mainly in the Palestinian camp. When there is genuine movement in that camp toward recognizing Israel and ceasing all terrorism, there is a good chance most Israelis will meet the Palestinians halfway.
A second issue area that requires Palestinian recognition concerns Israel's strategic status in the Middle East, particularly in light of the danger of a nuclear Iran.
Most western leaders argue that Arab and Muslim world hostility toward Israel will disappear with the creation of a Palestinian state. If this is indeed the case, they should be conditioning the creation of such a state on Palestinian recognition of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people. If they are right--and let's hope they are--then we cannot exaggerate the effect that such recognition would have on domestic Arab developments.
Indeed, from Iran's standpoint it would likely cause a virtual tsunami. Iran seeks support from the Islamic world based at least in part on the rationale that its military buildup is destined to support the Palestinians, who are at war. Hence Palestinian recognition would cause Iran to lose much of the legitimacy of its arms effort, certainly at the nuclear level. Syria, too, would have a considerable problem continuing to provide shelter, services and encouragement to organizations like Hamas and Hizballah.
Considering that Israelis who support a Palestinian state at any price belittle the need for Palestinian recognition of Israel for reasons of both principle and psychology, perhaps this strategic argument will persuade them. After all, they present themselves as pragmatic, logical people whose very point of departure is long-term strategy. Perhaps they can try for once to concentrate their efforts where it really counts: in the Palestinian camp. If once again they don't do so, this will be a sign that all the pragmatism they associate with their cause is insincere. They may not question the Holocaust like Mahmoud Abbas, but they are certainly denying reality.- Published 4/5/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Yisrael Harel heads the Institute for Zionist Strategy in Jerusalem and writes a weekly political column in Haaretz. He founded the Yesha Council (Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District) and headed it for 15 years.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.