Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has elevated a Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, or as the nation-state of the Jewish people (he has been using both phrases interchangeably), to a non-negotiable precondition to any agreement.
Thus, Netanyahu’s requirement, possibly a key to peace in the Middle East, raises a plethora of questions — the answers of which are unknown even to many people who have dealt with the conflict for a long time: Why does Netanyahu insist on it? What is implied by labeling Israel a “Jewish state,” especially for the country’s non-Jewish minorities? Was Netanyahu the first one to add this issue to the equation? Do the citizens of Israel support his all-or-nothing approach. And what does the world think of it all?
Since the Oslo Accords in 1995, the international community has formed somewhat of a consensus over the core issues. Following the Geneva Initiative, the Clinton parameters and George W. Bush’s Road Map, the contours of Middle East peace seem more or less obvious: a Palestinian state within adjusted pre-1967 lines, East Jerusalem as capital and a “just and agreed upon” solution to the refugee question. But somehow Netanyahu’s demand for recognition as a Jewish state hasn’t really been seriously discussed by world leaders, and the international community doesn’t seem sure about how to deal with this issue.
Still, given the important, nay, central role this issue has assumed in the current peace talks, it is somewhat surprising that no serious public discussion has taken place on how to deal with Netanyahu’s request. Is it justified because genuine peace requires the acceptance of the Jewish state, or merely a stalling tactic on the prime minister’s part, intended to obstruct negotiations and deflect blame toward the Palestinians’ ostensible intransigence and anti-Semitism?
Israel’s desire to be recognized a Jewish state is much older than the current round of US-brokered peace talks. Ever since Netanyahu accepted, in principle, the creation of a Palestinian state, during his Bar-Ilan University speech in 2009, he has made recognition a key element. “If the Palestinians recognize Israel as the State of the Jewish people, then we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state,” he said at the time.
But the issue came up even under Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert. On November 13, 2007, right before the Annapolis peace conference, then foreign minister (and current justice minister and chief peace negotiator) Tzipi Livni raised the issue in a meeting with senior Palestinian Authority officials.
“Israel the state of the Jewish people — and I would like to emphasize the meaning of ‘its people’ is the Jewish people,” Livni said, according to minutes of the meeting leaked to Al Jazeera. “I didn’t ask for recognizing something that is the internal decision of Israel. Israel can do so, it is a sovereign state. [We want you to recognize it.] The whole idea of the conflict is … the entire point is the establishment of the Jewish state.”
Stymieing calls for a Palestinian “right of return” is, of course, one main reason behind Netanyahu’s insistence for recognition. “Recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people means completely abandoning the ‘right of return’ and ending any other national demands over the land and sovereignty of the State of Israel,” he said last October. “This is a crucial component for a genuine reconciliation and stable and durable peace.”
The Israeli public seems to back Netanyahu’s position. According to a poll published earlier this month by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, more than three-quarters of Israeli Jews believe “it is important that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people” as part of an agreement. Only 21 percent said it was not important.