When discussion first surfaced a year or two ago about an Israeli call for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a “Jewish State,” criticisms of the Israeli government burst forth. Why was Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu adding a new requirement? It’s unrealistic, it was said, and demonstrated anew that the Israeli premier wasn’t really interested in negotiations and peace with the Palestinians.
One of the striking moments of the prime minister’s address before Congress was his focus on exactly this point. He called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to stand before his people and say six courageous words: “I will accept a Jewish state.”
Netanyahu continued: “Those six words will change history. They will make clear to the Palestinians that this conflict must come to an end. That they are building a state not to continue the conflict with Israel, but to end it.”
It may not be so obvious to everyone why the Israeli prime minister emphasized the words “Jewish state.” Isn’t it sufficient for the Palestinians to recognize the state of Israel?
Netanyahu’s words reflect an understanding of “old wine in new bottles,” of how Arab and Palestinian historic rejection of Israel’s existence can appear to change in a post-Oslo world but, in fact, represent the same rejectionism that has plagued this conflict for more than six decades.
The very concept of Israel as expressed in three documents – the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the UN Partition resolution of 1947, and the Israeli Declaration of Independence of 1948 – was as the home for the Jewish people based on the historic connection of the Jews to the land.
All three documents recognized the rights of Arab residents. Balfour called for no violation of their civil rights, the UN required a division of the land so that Arabs would have their own state, and the Declaration of Independence asserted full and equal rights for the Arab citizens of the new state -- in other words, a complete democracy in a Jewish state.
Aside from Hamas, which is blunt about its rejection of Israel, other Palestinians, in light of their commitments under the Oslo accords refrain from using the old Palestine Liberation Organization language about Israel. No more the assertion that Israel needs to be thrown into the sea; instead, it’s a two-state solution.
Yet significant parts of Israeli society believe that when the Palestinians say two states, they do not mean an Arab Palestinian state and a Jewish state, but a Palestinian state and a bi-national state. After all, if it was to be the former, then the Palestinians would acknowledge that the refugee problem should be resolved primarily within the new Palestinian state, just as the Jewish refugee problem was resolved by their absorption into Israel.
The fact that Abbas refuses to relinquish the “right of return” indicates that the Israeli state the Palestinians envision recognizing would in no way resemble the kind of state embodied in the Zionist concept of a homeland for the Jewish people.
That is why Israeli leaders across the political spectrum make clear there can be no peace agreement until the Palestinians stop demanding that refugees and their descendants be settled in Israel.
The call for the Palestinians to accept Israel as a Jewish state, however, recognizes that the refugee problem, as serious as it is, is still a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. This fundamental opposition to a Jewish state remains a tool to satisfy the goal of upending the Jewishness behind the state of Israel.
And it is exactly that Jewishness the enemies of Israel see as the true provocation.
It speaks to the long history of relations between Jews and Muslims through the centuries, a relationship that in many ways was better than that of Jews living under Christians in Europe, but was still characterized by a consistent Muslim belief in Jewish inferiority and second-class status.
This kind of thinking suffused that part of the world, even when individuals or political parties were not Islamic in any way. It didn’t matter if the ruler was pan-Arabist, Socialist, or otherwise secularist; even those of a non-Islamic bent shared pejorative notions about the Jews.
Israel, if it stands for anything in the Arab mind, is an assertion of Jewish equality. This is difficult for most Arabs and Muslims to swallow under any circumstances, but particularly so because that assertion is being made in the heartland of the Arab world.
Netanyahu’s statement that recognition of a Jewish state would change everything is truly an effort to get to the core of the problem.
Now is the right time for the Palestinians to say it. It is time they start teaching their children to say it. It is time to start acting in a way that removes any question of the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Holy Land. It’s hard to do, and there will be resistance. But if done, it offers the hope of changing for the better the lives of millions of Palestinians and Israelis.