As John Kerry continues to push for an Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement, there has been increasing focus on the question of whether Palestinian leaders will accept the legitimacy of Israel as it fundamentally is — the Jewish state. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas reportedly shot down Kerry’s request that an Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement include recognition of the Jewish state. Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, calls such recognition a “minimal requirement for peace.”
At first glance, the idea might seem uncontroversial. Many in the West, after all, feel the concept of “two states for two peoples” is what peace negotiations are all about. Of course Israel is the Jewish state. And of course Palestine would be the country for Palestinians to exercise their national self-determination. The Quartet, an umbrella of Middle East mediators comprised of the UN, US, EU and Russia, agrees. But even among more moderate Palestinians — those who don’t explicitly call for replacing Israel with an Islamic or a bi-national state, and replacing the Jewish majority with an Arab one — the call tends not to be for two states for two peoples but simply for two states, period.
Although the mantras sound deceptively similar, the omission of “two peoples” is deliberate and consequential. By leaving that out, you leave out the Jews. As Abbas bluntly stated in a 2011 interview, “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I will never recognize the Jewishness of the state, or a ‘Jewish state.’” He has more recently been quoted insisting he will not “accept” such a state, either.
To help make sense of the debate, it is worth unpacking some of the talking points that have been used to defend Abbas’s refusal to accept a Jewish state.
According to one defense, it is unreasonable to ask Palestinian leaders for such recognition because it is incompatible with the fundamental Palestinian narrative about the conflict. In the words of Taleb el-Sana, a former Arab-Israeli parliamentarian, it would “annul the Palestinian narrative about the Nakba.”
But this is essentially untrue. A historical narrative involves looking backward. Reconciliation requires looking forward. Palestinians would still be free to believe their Nakba narrative, which blames Zionism for the 1948 war and the suffering that it brought. They could, if they wish, see their side as perfectly innocent, even while at the same time recognizing that the (perfectly guilty) Jews are fulfilling and will continue to fulfill their national aspirations next door.
To see how this can work, look to the other side. Netanyahu certainly embraces the Israeli narrative. He feels that the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is the ancestral Jewish homeland, that the Jews, who are indigenous to Hebron on one side of the Green Line and Beit She’an on the other side, have national rights there, and that the Palestinians are responsible for both Israeli and Palestinian suffering by choosing war over compromise in 1947.
And yet, in a dramatic departure from his long-held views, he has made clear that he will accept “the Palestinian state for the Palestinian people.” Just as the Jewish narrative has survived that statement, the Palestinian narrative can survive the reciprocal words, “Jewish state for the Jewish people.”
Another argument against Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state is that this would amount to “endorsing or condoning” discrimination against Israel’s Arab minority, as American Task Force on Palestine’s Ziad J. Asali put it.
Tablet’s Leil Leibovitz dismisses this line of argumentation as fatuous. Minority rights are already protected in the Jewish state, he noted, and “Israel’s Arab population will continue to enjoy the same rights after the agreement as it did before.”
Perhaps most telling is that 65 percent of Arabs in northern Israel would prefer that their homes stay under Israeli jurisdiction rather than be put under the control of a future Palestinian state. In east Jerusalem, 42 percent would even “try to move to Israel if their neighborhood became part of a new Palestinian state.”
In short, however complicated it may be to integrate minorities in a region with a history of ethnic conflict, the idea of a nation state is certainly not incompatible with the idea of minority rights.
Asali also put forward one of the stranger arguments against Palestinian recognition. “The age-old question of ‘Who is a Jew’ remains hotly contested,” he points out. And between immigration authorities, the rabbinate and philosophers, there are multiple definitions of Jew. As a result, he argues, Palestinians are “not sure what it is they’re being asked to recognize.”
This is nothing but a distraction. In the context of what John Kerry is trying to achieve — a peace agreement — it is irrelevant that one rabbi might argue with another about a particular individual’s Jewishness. The point is that there are Jews in the world, and however fuzzy the defining borders might be, there is a Jewish people.
Again, it may be instructive to look to the other side. Assume there are 10 million Palestinians in the world. Now assume there are only 9 million. Have your views on the Palestinian right to self-determination changed?
More convincing, at least on the surface, is the assertion the Palestine Liberation Organization has already recognized Israel, and that this should be the end of the story. This argument might be more compelling were it the end of the story for Palestinians. But it is not.
The idea promoted by Palestinian leaders is that a country called Israel is acceptable, but the specific reality of Israel is not. Israel is legitimate, its fundamental character is not. Israel is legitimate, but only as a binational state that allows millions of Palestinians unfettered immigration. In short, “Israel” is legitimate, but Israel is not.
This is a recipe for continued strife. Suffice to say that when pro- and anti-Morsi protesters shut down Egypt, killed hundreds and overthrew one regime after another, it was not because they believed a country called Egypt shouldn’t exist. And the United States sanctions Cuba not because that country doesn’t have a right to exist. In other words, the strife, killing and economic sanctions are not caused by a word printed inside some lines on a map. They are a result of ideas about the legitimacy of governing systems.
Palestinian official Hannan Ashrawi contends that a Jewish state (though not a Palestinian state) amounts to racism. What do you do about perceived racism? You fight it. You seek to eliminate it. Sometimes, you are willing to kill or be killed for the cause. Mahmoud Abbas now insists that nobody, not even him, can take away the unalienable right Palestinians across the world to immigrate to Israel. What do you do in order to defend perceived inalienable rights?
This takes us to the worst, and most disturbing, rationale for Abbas’s refusal to recognize the Jewish state. Palestinian negotiators argue that such recognition would, as The New York Times summarizes it, “negate the Palestinian refugees’ demand for the right to return to their former homes.” The Palestinian insistence on a “right of return” for the descendants of refugees is understood, for good reason, as a push to demographically achieve what years of war against Israel has failed to bring: The destruction of the Jewish state.
The math is simple. One Palestinian state, plus one undefined state, plus unfettered Palestinian immigration into that undefined state equals two Palestinian states. Those who refuse to accept the Jewish state and explain that this is because they won’t relinquish their demand for a “right of return” are essentially saying they don’t accept two states for two peoples because they demand two states for one people. It goes without saying that Israel will never commit demographic suicide in this way; so a Palestinian refusal to relinquish this demand means a refusal to relinquish the conflict.
Instead of repeating that he will “never” recognize the Jewish state, maybe it is time for Mahmoud Abbas to consider whether the Palestinians, and the Jews, deserve more than unending hostility.