Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state — Barack Obama, March 21, 2013
The ‘Jewish state.’ What is a ‘Jewish state?’ We call it, the ‘State of Israel.’ You can call yourselves whatever you want. But I will not accept it. And I say this on a live broadcast… It’s not my job to define it, to provide a definition for the state and what it contains. You can call yourselves the Zionist Republic, the Hebrew, the National, the Socialist [Republic] call it whatever you like. I don’t care. — Mahmoud Abbas, 2009
When some 120 Israeli figures came here, they said, ‘What’s your opinion concerning the Jewish state?’, and I said that we wouldn’t agree to it. We know what they mean by it, and therefore we shall not agree to a Jewish state… — Abbas, 2011
We say to him [Netanyahu], when he claims — that they [Jews] have a historical right dating back to 3000 years BCE — we say that the nation of Palestine upon the land of Canaan had a 7000 year history BCE. This is the truth, which must be understood and we have to note it, in order to say: ‘Netanyahu, you are incidental in history. We are the people of history. We are the owners of history. — Abbas, 2011
Obama did not suggest that recognition of Israel as a Jewish state be a precondition for negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA), and PM Netanyahu has called for “negotiations without preconditions.” But there is no doubt that it must be a precondition — not just for talking to the PA, but for diplomacy with anybody about anything. How can a nation have a give and take discussion with someone who thinks that it is fundamentally illegitimate?
The Arab League initiative, for example, which I discussed here, does not include any mention of recognition. This is not merely an oversight: the initiative was conceived and is understood as an admission by the “Zionist regime” that is fully responsible for the conflict. The initiative calls for a redress of their historic grievance in part by means of the ‘return’ of almost 5 million Arabs who claim hereditary refugee status — something unheard of in the annals of diplomacy — which is incompatible with a Jewish state of Israel.
This is not a symbolic issue. Like Turkey’s Erdoğan, the Arabs have a narrative that they are not willing to compromise, not even a little. It includes the propositions that
- The Zionists created the conflict by taking Arab land and expelling the residents
- Israel perpetuated it by starting wars
- All the land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan is ‘occupied Palestinian land’
- Terrorism against Israelis is justified resistance to occupation
An agreement acceptable to the PA or the Arab nations must include an admission of guilt and an acceptance of the ‘ownership’ of the land by Arabs. Once this is done, then they may be more or less magnanimous to the Jewish residents — Hamas talks about killing them and the Arab league is willing to have ‘normal relations’ with them — but true Jewish sovereignty is out of the question.
So the Arabs insist on ‘right of return’ in order to reverse the nakba. They insist on withdrawal from 1967 territories to reverse the results of the several wars, and they insist on the release of all terrorist prisoners, even convicted murderers. All this sounds entirely fair and reasonable to them within the framework of their narrative.
This is why discussions about borders and security entirely miss the point, it is why the Camp David, Taba and Olmert proposals went nowhere, and why the negotiations that President Obama intends to restart will fail as well.
Unfortunately, many Israelis are blind to the importance of Arab ideology. They see the harsh statements of Arab leaders as ‘merely symbolic’, made for propaganda purposes or for home consumption. They believe that the Arabs are at bottom pragmatists like themselves, willing to set aside ideology for economic development or some degree of political autonomy.
This explains some really terrible ideas, such as the plan which surfaces periodically to grant the ‘refugees’ a ‘right of return’ in principle, but not in fact. Proponents say that it would satisfy the Arabs’ need for symbolism without destroying the Jewish state. But if such an abstract right were granted, then it would immediately be followed by demands to implement it in reality — just as the ‘apology’ to Erdoğan has been followed by demands to end restrictions on the flow of weapons and explosives to Hamas in Gaza.
They are not posturing. They mean what they say, and what they say is that they don’t accept a Jewish state.
As long as the Arabs cling to the idea that Jewish sovereignty is unacceptable, then no possible negotiations can end the conflict. But the process of negotiating under pressure from the US — and the pressure is always almost all on Israel — is not only frustrating and pointless, it can be humiliating and even dangerous.
There is a simple solution. Israel must insist that there can be no negotiations until all parties agree that Israel is the Jewish state of the Jewish people.