The problem facing the Palestinian leadership, as they strive to bring the millions living in the occupied territories some small relief from their collective suffering, reduces to a matter of a few words. Like a naughty child who has only to say “sorry” to be released from his room, the Hamas government need only say “We recognise Israel” and supposedly aid and international goodwill will wash over the West Bank and Gaza.
That, at least, was the gist of Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert’s recent speech during a visit to the Negev, when he suggested that his country’s hand was stretched out across the sands towards the starving masses of Gaza — if only Hamas would repent. “Recognise us and we are ready to talk about peace” was the implication.
Certainly the Palestinian people have been viciously punished for making their democratic choice early this year to elect a Hamas government that Israel and the Western powers disapprove of: an economic blockade has been imposed, starving the Palestinian Authority of income to pay for services and remunerate its large workforce; millions of dollars in tax monies owed to the Palestinians have been illegally withheld by Israel, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis; a physical blockade of Gaza enforced by Israel has prevented the Palestinians from exporting their produce, mostly perishable crops, and from importing essentials like food and medicine; Israeli military strikes have damaged Gaza’s vital infrastructure, including the supply of electricity and water, as well as randomly killing its inhabitants; and thousands of families are being torn apart as Israel uses the pretext of its row with Hamas to stop renewing the visas of Palestinian foreign passport holders.
The magic words “We recognise you” could end all this suffering. So why did their prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, vow last week never to utter them. Is Hamas so filled with hatred and loathing for Israel as a Jewish state that it cannot make such a simple statement of good intent?
It is easy to forget that, though conditions have dramatically deteriorated of late, the Palestinians’ problems did not start with the election of Hamas. Israel’s occupation is four decades old, and no Palestinian leader has ever been able to extract from Israel a promise of real statehood in all of the occupied territories: not the mukhtars, the largely compliant local leaders, who for decades were the only representatives allowed to speak on behalf of the Palestinians after the national leadership was expelled; not the Palestinian Authority under the secular leadership of Yasser Arafat, who returned to the occupied territories in the mid-1990s after the PLO had recognised Israel; not the leadership of his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, the “moderate” who first called for an end to the armed intifada; and now not the leaders of Hamas, even though they have repeatedly called for a long-term truce (hudna) as the first step in building confidence.
Similarly, few Palestinians doubt that Israel will continue to entrench the occupation — just as it did during the supposed peace-making years of Oslo, when the number of Jewish settlers doubled in the occupied territories — even if Hamas is ousted and a government of national unity, of technocrats or even of Fatah takes its place.
There is far more at stake for Israel in winning this little concession from Hamas than most observers appreciate. A statement saying that Hamas recognised Israel would do much more than meet Israel’s precondition for talks; it would mean that Hamas had walked into the same trap that was set earlier for Arafat and Fatah. That trap is designed to ensure that any peaceful solution to the conflict is impossible.
It achieves this end in two ways.
First, as has already been understood, at least by those paying attention, Hamas’ recognition of Israel’s “right to exist” would effectively signify that the Palestinian government was publicly abandoning its own goal of struggling to create a viable Palestinian state.
That is because Israel refuses to demarcate its own future borders, leaving it an open question what it considers to be the extent of “its existence” it is demanding Hamas recognise. We do know that no one in the Israeli leadership is talking about a return to Israel’s borders that existed before the 1967 war, or probably anything close to it.
Without a return to those pre-1967 borders (plus a substantial injection of goodwill from Israel in ensuring unhindered passage between Gaza and the West Bank) no possibility exists of a viable Palestinian state ever emerging.
And no goodwill, of course, will be forthcoming. Every Israeli leader has refused to recognise the Palestinians, first as a people and now as a nation. And in the West’s typically hypocritical fashion when dealing with the Palestinians, no one has ever suggested that Israel commit to such recognition.
In fact, Israeli governments have glorified in their refusal to extend the same recognition to the Palestinians that they demand from them. Famously Golda Meir, a Labor prime minister, said that the Palestinians did not exist, adding in 1971 that Israel’s “borders are determined by where Jews live, not where there is a line on a map.” At the same time she ordered that the Green Line, Israel’s border until the 1967 war, be erased from all official maps.
That legacy hit the headlines last week when the dovish education minister, Yuli Tamir, caused a storm by issuing a directive that the Green Line should be reintroduced in Israeli schoolbooks. There were widespread protests against her “extreme leftist ideology” from politicians and rabbis.
According to Israeli educators, the chances of textbooks showing the Green Line again — or dropping references to “Judea and Samaria”, the Biblical names for the West Bank, or including Arab towns on maps of Israel — are close to nil. The private publishers who print the textbooks would refuse to incur the extra costs of reprinting the maps, said Prof Yoram Bar-Gal, head of geography at Haifa University.
Sensitive to the damage that the row might do to Israel’s international image, and aware that Tamir’s directive is never likely to be implemented, Olmert agreed in principle to the change. “There is nothing wrong with marking the Green Line,” he said. But, in a statement that made his agreement entirely hollow, he added: “But there is an obligation to emphasize that the government’s position and public consensus rule out returning to the 1967 lines.”
The second element to the trap is far less well understood. It explains the strange formulation of words Israel uses in making its demand of Hamas. Israel does not ask it simply to “recognise Israel”, but to “recognise Israel’s right to exist”. The difference is not a just matter of semantics.
The concept of a state having any rights is not only strange but alien to international law. People have rights, not states. And that is precisely the point: when Israel demands that its “right to exist” be recognised, the subtext is that we are not speaking of recognition of Israel as a normal nation state but as the state of a specific people, the Jews.
In demanding recognition of its right to exist, Israel is ensuring that the Palestinians agree to Israel’s character being set in stone as an exclusivist Jewish state, one that privileges the rights of Jews over all other ethnic, religious and national groups inside the same territory. The question of what such a state entails is largely glossed over both by Israel and the West.
For most observers, it means simply that Israel must refuse to allow the return of the millions of Palestinians languishing in refugee camps throughout the region, whose former homes in Israel have now been appropriated for the benefit of Jews. Were they allowed to come back, Israel’s Jewish majority would be eroded overnight and it could no longer claim to be a Jewish state, except in the same sense that apartheid South Africa was a white state.
This conclusion is apparently accepted by Romano Prodi, Italy’s prime minister, after a round of lobbying in European captials from Israel’s telegenic foreign minister, Tzipi Livni. According to the Jerusalem Post, Prodi is saying in private that Israel should receive guarantees from the Palestinians that its Jewish character will never be in doubt.
Israeli officials are cheering what they believe is the first crack in Europe’s support for international law and the rights of the refugees. “It’s important to get everyone on the same page on this one,” an official told the Post.
But in truth the consequences of the Palestinian leadership recognising Israel as a Jewish state run far deeper than the question of the future of the Palestinian refugees. In my book Blood and Religion, I set out these harsh consequences both for the Palestinians in the occupied territories and for the million or so Palestinians who live inside Israel as citizens, supposedly with the same rights as Jewish citizens.
My argument is that this need to maintain Israel’s Jewish character at all costs is actually the engine of its conflict with the Palestinians. No solution is possible as long as Israel insists on privileging citizenship for Jews above other groups, and on distorting the region’s territorial and demographic realities to ensure that the numbers continue to weigh in the Jews’ favour.
Although ultimately the return of the refugees poses the biggest threat to Israel’s “existence”, Israel has a far more pressing demographic concern: the refusal by the Palestinians living in the West Bank to leave the parts of that territory Israel covets (and which it knows by the Biblical names of Judea and Samaria).
Within a decade, the Palestinians in the occupied territories and the million Palestinian citizens living inside Israel will outnumber Jews, both those living in Israel and the settlers in the West Bank.
That was one of the chief reasons for the “disengagement” from Gaza: Israel could claim that, even though it is still occupying the small piece of land militarily, it was no longer responsible for the population there. By withdrawing a few thousand settlers from the Strip, 1.4 million Gazans were instantly wiped from the demographic score sheet.
But though the loss of Gaza has posponed for a few years the threat of a Palestinian majority in the expanded state Israel desires, it has not magicly guaranteed Israel’s continuing existence as a Jewish state. That is because Israel’s Palestinian citizens, though a minority comprising no more than fifth of Israel’s population, can potentially bring the whole house of cards tumbling down.
For the past decade they have been demanding that Israel be reformed from a Jewish state, which systematically discriminates against them and denies their Palestinian identity, into a “state of all its citizens”, a liberal democracy that would give all citizens, Jews and Palestinians, equal rights.
Israel has characterised the demand for a state of all its citizens as subversion and treason, realising that, were the Jewish state to become a liberal democracy, Palestinian citizens could justifiably demand: the right to marry Palestinians from the occupied territories and from the Diaspora, winning them Israeli citizenship — “a right of return through the backdoor” as officials call it. the right to bring Palestinian relatives in exile back to Israel under a Right of Return programme that would be a pale shadow of the existing Law of Return that guarantees any Jew anywhere in the world the automatic right to Israeli citizenship.
To prevent the first threat, Israel passed a flagrantly racist law in 2003 that makes it all but impossible for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to bring a Palestinian spouse to Israel. For the time being, such couples have little choice but to seek asylum abroad, if other countries will give them refuge.
But like the Gaza disengagement, this piece of legislation is a delaying tactic rather than a solution to the problem of Israel’s “existence”. So behind the scenes Israel has been formulating ideas that taken together would remove large segments of Israel’s Palestinian population from its borders and strip any remaining “citizens” of their political rights — unless they swear loyalty to a “Jewish and democratic state” and thereby renounce their demand that Israel reform itself into a liberal democracy. This is the bottom line for a Jewish state, just as it was for a white apartheid South Africa: if we are to survive, then we must be able to do whatever it takes to keep ourselves in power, even if it means systematically violating the human rights of all those we rule over and who do not belong to our group.
Ultimately, the consequences of Israel being allowed to remain a Jewish state will be felt by all of us, wherever we live — and not only because of the fallout from the continuing and growing anger in the Arab and Muslim worlds at the double standards applied by the West to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Given Israel’s view that its most pressing interest is not peace or regional accommodation with its neighbours but the need to ensure a Jewish majority at all costs to protect its “existence”, Israel is likely to act in ways that endanger regional and global stability.
A small taste of that was suggested in the role played by Israel’s supporters in Washington in making the case for the invasion of Iraq, and this summer in Israel’s assault on Lebanon. But it is most evident in its drumbeat of war against Iran.
Israel has been leading the attempts to characterise the Iranian regime as profoundly anti-Semitic, and its presumed ambitions for nuclear weapons as directed by the sole goal of wanting to “wipe Israel off the map” — a calculatedly mischievious mistranslation of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech.
Most observers have assumed that Israel is genuinely concerned for its safety from nuclear attack, however implausible the idea that even the most fanatical Muslim regime would, unprovoked, launch nuclear missiles against a small area of land that contains some of Islam’s holiest sites, in Jerusalem.
But in truth there is another reason why Israel is concerned about a nuclear-armed Iran that has nothing to do with conventional ideas about safety.
Last month, Ephraim Sneh, one of Israel’s most distinguished generals and now Olmert’s deputy defence minister, revealed that the government’s primary concern was not the threat posed by Ahmadinejad firing nuclear missiles at Israel but the effect of Iran’s possession of such weapons on Jews who expect Israel to have a monopoly on the nuclear threat.
If Iran got such weapons, “Most Israelis would prefer not to live here; most Jews would prefer not to come here with families, and Israelis who can live abroad will … I am afraid Ahmadinejad will be able to kill the Zionist dream without pushing a button. That’s why we must prevent this regime from obtaining nuclear capability at all costs.”
In other words, the Israeli government is considering either its own pre-emptive strike on Iran or encouraging the United States to undertake such an attack — despite the terrible consequences for global security — simply because a nuclear-armed Iran might make Israel a less attractive place for Jews to live, lead to increased emigration and tip the demographic balance in the Palestinians’ favour.
Regional and possibly global war may be triggered simply to ensure that Israel’s “existence” as a state that offers exclusive privileges to Jews continues.
For all our sakes, we must hope that the Palestinians and their Hamas government continue refusing to “recognise Israel’s right to exist”.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His book, Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State, is published by Pluto Press.