Binyamin Netanyahu 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
To mainstream Israelis, Binyamin Netanyahu's demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is self-evidently just. Yet many in the West, the Arab world and even Israel's left reject it utterly.
Meeting in Luxembourg last Monday, European foreign ministers said conditions such as this were unacceptable. Former US president Jimmy Carter echoed this comment. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak declared that "nobody in Egypt or anywhere else... can recognize Israel as the state of the Jews"; pro-government papers in Jordan and Saudi Arabia published similar statements. The Palestinians said they will never accept this demand. Even some Israelis objected: Peres Center for Peace president Uri Savir termed it "unnecessary" in this paper on Friday; columnist Yoel Marcus labeled it "idiotic" in Friday's Haaretz; Yonatan Touval of the Geneva Initiative called it "absurd" and "deeply harmful" in The New York Times last month.
Opponents raise three main objections. First, Israel never demanded recognition as a Jewish state in its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, so this is clearly not essential for peace. Second, the Palestinians will never accept it, so not only is it unnecessary, it is an obstacle to peace. And third, the Palestinians should not accept it, because it would undermine the rights of Israel's Arab minority.
THE FLAW in the first two arguments is that they overlook a crucial distinction: Neither Egypt nor Jordan ever sought to eradicate Israel's Jewish character via their peace treaties; their demands were confined to mundane issues such as territory and water rights. The Palestinians, in contrast, are actively seeking to eradicate Israel's Jewish character via a peace treaty.
Specifically, they demand the right to relocate 4.6 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants (UNRWA's figure) to Israel - a demand from which they have never budged in 16 years of negotiations. This influx, combined with the 1.5 million Arab citizens, would make its 5.6 million Jews a minority in their own country, effectively eradicating the Jewish state.
Thus it is the Palestinians, not Israel, who have placed its Jewish character on the negotiating table. Netanyahu, far from raising new and irrelevant demands, is merely responding to theirs.
Moreover, far from being an obstacle to peace, Netanyahu's demand is indeed essential to it - because the Jewish state will never agree to abolish itself via a peace treaty. Hence until the Palestinians stop demanding that it do so, no treaty will be possible.
The third argument, in contrast, is simply ridiculous. Since this already is a Jewish state, Palestinian recognition of this fact would in no way worsen Israeli Arabs' existing situation. Nor would it preclude them from using democratic means to try to change its Jewish character from within: They are not citizens of Palestine, so Palestinian commitments do not bind them.
Indeed, the only effect Palestinian recognition of Israel's Jewish character could have on Israeli Arabs is forcing them to abandon the delusion of someday eliminating it via mass Palestinian immigration. But since not even the most sweeping definition of democratic rights includes allowing national minorities to take over their country by importing millions of their fellow nationals, depriving Israeli Arabs of this delusion in no way violates their rights.
STILL, ALL of the above begs two questions. First, if Israel's main concern is preventing millions of Palestinians from flooding the country, why muddy the waters by demanding recognition as a Jewish state? Why not simply reiterate its long-standing position - which most of the West accepts - that the refugees and their descendants must be resettled elsewhere? And second, why should recognition of its Jewish character be a precondition for negotiations, as Netanyahu initially demanded - though he has since shamefully backtracked? To answer these questions, it is necessary to ask a third one: If Palestinian recognition of Israel's Jewish character is so important, why did it not raise this demand in 1993, when talks began? The answer is that then, it assumed both sides were negotiating in good faith, making it unnecessary to spell out the obvious endgame of two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian. And indeed, the original Oslo Accord mentions neither a Jewish state nor a Palestinian one.
Sixteen years later, however, this assumption has proven only half-true: Successive Israeli governments have committed explicitly to the goal of a Palestinian state, but the Palestinians have yet to abandon their demand for the demographic elimination of the Jewish one. It has thus become increasingly clear that the real problem is not the refugees, but Palestinian unwillingness to accept the very existence of a Jewish state. And since Israel will not agree to commit suicide, further talks will be pointless unless this unwillingness changes.
Yet the justice of making recognition a precondition for talks goes far deeper than that, as a Palestinian parallel ironically demonstrates. Prior to his speech last Sunday, Netanyahu had refused to commit to the goal of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians refused to resume negotiations unless he did, and the world, rightly, backed them. Essentially, the Palestinian position was "we will not agree to negotiate about whether we have a right to exist; we are only prepared to discuss the details." But the Jewish state is also not prepared to negotiate about whether it has a right to exist. It, too, is only prepared to discuss the details: borders, water rights, compensating the refugees, etc. And despite its initial belief in Palestinian good faith, it never should have allowed the "right of return" onto the table: No sane country would agree to make its very existence a subject of negotiations.
Netanyahu, however inconsistently, is belatedly trying to correct this fatal error, and he deserves the world's wholehearted support. And this is not merely because, practically speaking, no peace deal will be possible unless the Palestinians accept the Jewish state's existence.
Primarily, it is because the Jewish state cannot be the only state in the world whose very right to exist is subject to negotiations. And the Jewish people cannot be the only people in the world whose right to a nation-state of its own is deemed negotiable.