Monday, May 30, 2011

Pressing the Palestinians on Recognizing a Jewish State of Israel

Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) has written an article for Foreign Policy about Prime Minister Netanyahu's insistence that Palestinian Authority President Mahmous Abbas recognize the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Here is precisely what Netanyahu said during his speech in Congress last week:
President Abbas must do what I have done. I stood before my people -- and I told you it wasn’t easy for me. I stood before my people, and I said, “I will accept a Palestinian state.” It’s time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say, “I will accept a Jewish state.” Those six words will change history. They’ll make it clear to the Palestinians that this conflict must come to an end, that they’re not building a Palestinian state to continue the conflict with Israel, but to end it. And those six words will convince the people of Israel that they have a true partner for peace.
The venerable Ibish has written on this point before, in October 2010, when Netanyahu offered to extend the settlement freeze in exchange for the Palestinians accepting Israel as a Jewish state. Here's what he said then:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposal earlier today that Israel might agree to a two-month extension of the partial, temporary settlement moratorium expired in late September on condition that Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" is insulting and frivolous.
There is a reason Ibish, a pro-Palestinian centrist and pragmatist, is so prolific and quite visibly vociferous on this subject - it is a point of potentially very deep Palestinian weakness. He repeatedly delves into the legal, political, diplomatic and cultural ramifications of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, but he's evading the one point that counts most, from a Jewish/Israeli perspective, and the reason this issue is being brought to the table - the psychological dimension.

Whether this "demand" is new or not is irrelevant. An argument could be made that the legitimacy of a Jewish homeland in the Arab world has always been the root of the conflict. On the other hand, Israel's longtime Foreign Minister Abba Eban rejected making this a point of negotiations with the Arabs, as he felt the state's character should not be subjected to an Arab veto. However, it's fairly obvious that, since Oslo, all Israeli governments considered the end goals of negotiations to be a Jewish State and a Palestinian State, and moreover a Palestinian recognition and acceptance that this outcome was the final goal. It was only after the launch of the Second Intifada that Israel's pro-peace center and left were shocked that the Palestinians they had been working with for years never intended to recognize a Jewish state, but an ambiguous state, which might one day become Palestinian also.

Whatever the arguments, those Palestinians (and Americans and Europeans and Arabs) who desire a two state solution should readily meet Netanyahu's challenge. Instead of accusing him of throwing up obstacles to peace, they should immediately nullify those obstacles at their source. If tomorrow the Palestinian Authority, Arab governments and Europe were to erupt in proclamations by leaders recognizing the Jewish character of the State of Israel, and the legitimate and historic right of Jews to reside in it, whatever opposition Netanyahu has mustered to a two state solution will crumble instantly. The psychological impact of such an event, were it to be conducted credibly, would force an immediate return to negotiations and result in surefire Palestinian statehood within months.

The inability of the Palestinian leadership to recognize this point - or perhaps they recognize it just fine - leads to the very troubling conclusion that this conflict really isn't about land or Palestinian self-determination. Perhaps the obstacle is not one which Netanyahu has created, but one which he has identified. Israel's center-left opposition leader Tzippi Livni said it best, sometime during her deliberations with senior Palestinian negotiators in the last government; to paraphrase: If we're talking about two states for two people, then who are those two people? For most every government in the world the answer is clear - the Jewish people and the Palestinian people. It's high time the Palestinians (and the Arabs) ended their indefensible rejection of this very basic international consensus.
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