To the surprise of observers, given the many issues blocking progress in the current Middle East peace talks, Israel and the United States now appear to regard the Palestinian refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state as the key obstacle to an agreement.
This demand is relatively new to the peace process, having made its debut in 2007 – 14 years after the Oslo accords originally laid down the path that was supposed to lead to Palestinian statehood.
In 1993, in the run-up to the signing of the accords, Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, wrote a letter to the Israeli prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, officially recognising Israel. In return, Rabin recognised the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the representative of the Palestinian people.
But such recognition no longer appears enough for Israel.
While former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert first mooted Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state at the brief revival of peace talks in Annapolis seven years ago, it has become a cornerstone of Israeli diplomacy only since Benjamin Netanyahu took office.
In recent months he has reiterated that Palestinian recognition of Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people” is the “real key for peace” and an “essential condition” for an agreement. In a video message to the Saban Forum in Washington last month, Netanyahu stated that the core of the conflict was “about one thing: The persistent refusal to accept the Jewish state in any border”.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly rejected such a provision in a final agreement. He wrote letters last month to both US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry that included his objections.
This month Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official in the PLO, characterised Israel’s demand as an attempt to “legalise racism”. She added that Israel wanted to “create a narrative that denies the Palestinian presence, rights, and continuity on the historic Palestinian lands”.
Many Palestinian analysts suspect that Netanyahu, long identified with the hawkish right, has only raised this new condition to stymie chances of the talks progressing further.
Yaron Ezrahi, a politics professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, agrees, saying Netanyahu introduced the demand as a “cynical spoiler”. He added, “It is a ridiculous demand because even Israelis are not agreed on what it means to be a Jewish state, or even who is included in the definition of the Jewish people.”
Like many other observers, Ezrahi believes that Netanyahu has imposed the condition because it puts Abbas in “an impossible position” on several fronts.
It would require him to sacrifice the rights of Palestinian refugees, expelled during the founding of Israel in 1948, to return to their former lands. It would undermine the struggle of Israel’s large Palestinian minority for equality. And it would confer Palestinian consent on the erasure of their narrative of the events of 1948.
“For all these reasons,” says Jamal Zahalka, a member of the Israeli parliament representing the country’s Palestinian minority, “no Palestinian leader could ever agree to this demand.”
However, much to the consternation of the Palestinian leadership, the US diplomatic team led by Kerry, that is overseeing the current peace talks, appears to have taken Netanyahu’s new condition to heart.
Israeli officials have said that Kerry intends to include Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state in his so-called “framework proposal”, which is supposed to lay out the contours of a final peace agreement.
Israel has also been lobbying European leaders to recognise it as a Jewish state. Zahalka says that in meetings with European governments he has heard an increasing readiness to do so.
Kerry is expected to unveil his peace plan to both the Israelis and Palestinians in the coming weeks, with the talks due to finish at the end of April. However, Israel is said to have requested that the negotiations continue for another year.
In a sign of how quickly the recognition demand has risen to the top of the agenda, Kerry is widely reported to have sought the backing of Arab states for the inclusion of this provision in a final agreement, during a meeting of the Arab League’s foreign ministers in Paris on January 12.
Beforehand, he also travelled to Amman and Riyadh in what Israeli officials said were efforts to lobby King Abdullah of Jordan and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Israel’s behalf.
According to several reports, Kerry is seeking to add recognition of Israel as a Jewish state into the Arab Peace Initiative, unveiled by Saudi Arabia in 2002. The plan, which Israel has ignored for more than a decade, offers Israel peace with the whole Arab world in return for its agreement to create a Palestinian state.
The Times of Israel said Kerry hoped that Abbas might concede recognition if he comes under enough pressure from other Arab leaders.
Without recognition from the Palestinians, Haaretz reported, Kerry believes “he will find it very hard to get Netanyahu either to agree to conduct negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines or to demonstrate flexibility on the issue of [Israeli] security arrangements”.
However, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki said Kerry had been rebuffed at the Arab League meeting on the recognition issue. “The Arab states will never recognise a Jewish state,” he told Radio Palestine after the Paris meeting.
So what is at stake for both sides if the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state?
For Netanyahu, what started as a cynical ploy, says Ezrahi, has become a matter of growing strategic importance in his eyes. “Now it seems he really believes in this condition.”
“It helps Netanyahu that it is very popular with the Israeli public,” adds Amal Jamal, a politics professor at Tel Aviv University.
On the one hand, it provides Netanyahu with an ideological basis for asserting Israeli claims to more areas of the West Bank that were intended to be in a future Palestinian state.
Last week it emerged that Netanyahu wants Kerry to add at least one more settlement, Beit El, near Ramallah, to the three so-called blocs – Ariel, Gush Etzion, and Maale Adumim – Israel has long demanded. Netanyahu recently stated that the settlements of Beit El and Hebron, which contain a few hundred settlers in the midst of a large Palestinian city, are “important to the Jewish people” because of their Biblical significance. He added that an “agreement cannot erase the state of Israel’s rights or the rights of the Jewish people”.
The other main advantage, says Ezrahi, is that it cements the inferior rights of Israel’s 1.5 million Palestinian citizens, a fifth of the total population.
He notes that Ehud Barak, who was prime minister when Israel and the Palestinians tried to negotiate a final status agreement at Camp David in 2000, insisted that the Palestinians sign an end-of-claims clause. “Netanyahu has done something much cleverer but more problematic. His demand for recognition implies the institutionalisation of discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian minority.”
That is in part because Israel’s Jewish self-definition, as Moshe Machover, a British-Israeli philosopher, has noted, is designed to enshrine it as the “state of the entire Jewish ‘nation’: Not just of its own Jewish citizens, but of all Jews everywhere”.
That would entitle Jews anywhere in the world, even those without citizenship, access to greater rights inside Israel than those of citizens who belong to the Palestinian minority.
Zahalka takes a hard line on the recognition issue. “Some in the PA say they are happy not to interfere in how Israel defines itself. They think it is okay for Israel call itself whatever it wants. I don’t agree with that.”
He says Israel’s current status as a Jewish state means that many of the Palestinian minority’s rights have been effectively revoked. “Lots of discriminatory laws and policies derive from the state’s Jewishness. The Palestinian leadership has no right to disqualify our struggle for equality.”
Kerry is said to be considering a formulation to allay the fears of the country’s Palestinian citizens. Al-Ayyam newspaper reported that a clause might be inserted into an agreement recognising Israel “as the nation-state of the Jewish people, without prejudice to the civil rights of Israeli Arabs”. But Zahalka is not placated. “Israel’s Declaration of Independence says that the rights of non-Jewish citizens will be protected, but we know that in practice the promise was meaningless.”
Ezrahi adds that Kerry may be under the impression that Israel would be willing to pass legislation to guarantee the equality of its Palestinians citizens. “In reality, I don’t see any indications that Netanyahu and the right would be prepared to do so.”
As an indication of Netanyahu’s priorities, Zahalka points to a measure announced this month by the Israeli prime minister to raise the electoral threshold at the next election for parties to enter the Knesset, from 2 to 3.25 percent. Most observers believe one of his motives is to make it difficult for the small anti-Zionist parties popular with the Palestinian minority to win representation.
Jamal says Netanyahu has little to lose from continuing to push the recognition issue. “It puts the ball firmly in the Palestinians’ court. If they refuse, he can argue that it was they who sabotaged the peace process. They will then be the ones to face pressure from the US and Europe.”
Like other analysts, Jamal sees little chance of the talks heading to an agreement, given how far apart the two sides are.
Netanyahu, even if he wanted to make a deal, has no political backing for it, he says. “Even if the far-right parties quit and the Labor and Meretz parties replaced them in the coalition, Netanyahu has the positions of his own Likud party to worry about. He simply has no room to make concessions on even the most minimal demands being made by the Palestinians.”