Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why the "Jewish state" demand?

via Zvi Bar'el @ Haaretz:

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak: "No one in Egypt or anywhere else can accept Netanyahu's demand to recognize Israel as the state of the Jews." (Egypt has enjoyed a stable peace with Israel for almost 30 years and has never recognized Israel as a Jewish state.)

Palestinian lead negotiator Saeb Erekat: "The peace process moved like a tortoise. Today Netanyahu flipped it on its back."

Netanyahu's "major policy speech" took a severe beating in the Arab street and Arab press, especially his demand for the Palestinians (and the rest of the Arab world it seems) to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said several times before that he does not believe it is the Palestinian Authority's role to comment on the internal ethno-religious character of foreign states.

Bar'el complains that, "no one in the Middle East was impressed that Netanyahu had uttered the words 'Palestinian State.'" Why would they be impressed? Acceptance of the two-state solution had been the Israeli government's public stance for the past 16 years. Spencer Ackerman joked that Netanyahu is "stepping boldly into 1993." Netanyahu's election and refusal to accept the two-state solution turned the clock back on the peace process. Now he reluctantly mutters that he accepts it - only if several unacceptable conditions are agreed to upfront, before anyone sits down. Again I ask why anyone should be impressed with Benjamin Netanyahu? Even Ariel Sharon (an Israeli politician who most Palestinians regarded with an almost dastardly evil reverence) accepted the necessity of a Palestinian state for the long-term security needs of Israel.

Netanyahu's "Jewish state" plays extraordinarilly well with his coalition and most Israelis, as well as with American Jews. It also plays well with people without a nuanced understanding of the conflict and peace process. "Of course Israel is a Jewish state!" they would exclaim. There's obviously far more to it.

Israeli PM Netanyahu went so far as to suggest that the underlying cause of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the Arabs' refusal to give Israel recognition as a Jewish state. I find little credibility in this assertion. Egypt and Jordan have both enjoyed decades of stable peace with Israel without ever recognizing Israel as an explicitly Jewish state. The Egyptians and Jordanians did recognize Israel's right to exist (which used to be the condition for negotiations, but has since been replaced with the new Jewish state demand), as did the Palestinian Authority and the PLO.

The Arab world has many reason for not accepting Israel as a Jewish state and Israel should tread carefully with this demand because there may be consequences for international recognition of the character of other sovereign nations. First, it is of dire importance to note that Israel is no more than 75% Jewish. That's a majority, yes, but Israel loves to pride herself on being a liberal democracy and in liberal democracies even minority communities are equal before the law. Second, 20% of Israelis are Palestinian Israelis who have less than equal social and political rights in the country. The Palestinian Authority views itself not just as the government of Palestine (well, the West Bank really) but as a representative of Palestinian refugees in the diaspora (Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, etc...) and as Palestinians in Israel. Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would thus force the PA to abandon the cause of equality for Palestinians living in Israel and of the right of return of refugees to Israel proper. The right of return may very well have to be axed if any solution is to be found, but not upfront as a precondition. If you're going to negotiate, let negotiations be the place to settle differences and abandon claims - with both sides coming to the table as equals. Third, insisting that foreign countries recognize Israel as a Jewish country (rather than a country of an overwhelming majority of Jews) has implications for Israel's claims to East Jerusalem and the Old City. If Israel is a Jewish nation, does that undermine her claims to the Muslim, Armenian, and Christian quarters of the Old City? Why should the Jewish country have full claim to East Jerusalem, populated by an overwhelming majority of Palestinians (both Muslims and Christians)? It only seems logical that the Jewish state should then relinquish control of East Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority in order to be more Jewish.

Netanyahu's demands are not solely responsible for torpedoing any chances at resuming negotiations between Israel and the PA. The PA is busy negotiating with Hamas to regain control of the Gaza Strip and create a multi-factional unity government. Palestinian fragmentation is probably the biggest obstacle to overcome in resuming negotiations, but Netanyahu's entirely arbitrary "Jewish state" demand is not far behind. If negotiations between Israel and the PA were to start again and Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip experienced real improvements in their everyday lives - that were achieved due to good faith negotiations, Fateh and the PA would be strenghthened and Hamas would see its support undermined. This is quite hopeful though, as what usually happens is this all too familiar storyline: The PA and Israel negotiate. Hamas publicly opposes the talks and tells Palestinians it will be a waste of time because nothing will actually happen. Nothing actually happens - checkpoints aren't removed, settlements continue to expand, the Gaza siege remains. Hamas snickers, "we told you so." Mahmoud Abbas looks like an Israeli tool and once again comes back to the West Bank empty-handed, with only a pat on the back from the Americans for trying once again. Hamas gains popularity, Fateh's support dwindles.

Why can't we reverse this? If the Israelis really wanted to crush Hamas they'd do it by
rewarding factions that come to the table, ready to cut a deal, rather than continuously rewarding those that fire rockets at Israeli civilians. Israeli leaders need to realize how the incentives look to regular Palestinians and adjust their policies to help embattled Palestinian moderates.

In closing, Netanyahu did accept in theory the notion of the two-state solution. However, he wrapped it in enough arbitrary preconditions to make any negotiations impossible for moderate Palestinian leaders with little political capital to accept, insuring that he can talk the talk to look better before Obama, but never actually has to walk the walk with the Palestinians.

This blog isn't going anywhere soon. Peace is still miles away and nobody seems to be able to find the keys.

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