In recent days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reiterated his demand that the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and that this is “an essential condition” for peace. As many critics point out, correctly, the PLO has already recognized Israel’s right to exist (it did so on September 9, 1993). Here is an excerpt of a letter from Yasser Arafat who we can all agree was a tad less moderate than the current chairman of the PLO:
Mr. Prime Minister,
The signing of the Declaration of Principles marks a new era in the history of the Middle East. In firm conviction thereof, I would like to confirm the following PLO commitments:
The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.
The PLO accepts United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.
The PLO commits itself to the Middle East peace process, and to a peaceful resolution of the conflict between the two sides and declares that all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiations.
To most reasonable observers, this is the end of the story when it comes to recognition. Indeed, in the cases of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians (before Netanyahu invented this new “essential” requirement), a basic recognition of sovereignty sufficed. When we consider the fact that Egypt and Jordan command formidable militaries that the Palestinians can only dream of, the demand becomes even more gratuitous, facile, and absurd.
That’s because the demand is disingenuous at its core, and actually demonstrates a poverty of knowledge when it comes to the Palestinian issue.
Netanyahu, like any student of politics, knows that there are issues on the periphery that could destroy any beautiful masterpiece. The more the discussion is about incitement, or the Nakba, or recognition, the more likely serious issues like borders and security will never be discussed. And as Peter Beinart averred in his inaugural Ha’aretz column, this is exactly what the Likud base wants.
As an optimist, I like to think this is a frontage for Bibi to negotiate in relative secrecy, and present a final status agreement before anything else, thus ensuring coalition stability during the talks. But let’s assume the worst intentions for a moment and realize how feebleminded of a demand this is in regards to Israel’s national interests. There are many ways a Palestinian state would pose a security threat to Israel, and centrists and liberals promoting a two-state solution should not whitewash this. But there is only one way the Palestinians pose an existential threat to Israel, and that is if they are incorporated into the Israeli national polity. There is only one way to address this issue ethically, and that is through the establishment of borders, either through negotiations or a unilateral withdrawal. If the demand for recognition as a Jewish state is to be taken seriously, it implies that there is a scenario other than separation that would protect Israel’s demographic integrity. There simply is not.
The only argument in favor of this demand that holds any water at all, but not much, is that this is a way for the Palestinians to relinquish their right of return. Perhaps this is true, but it is only a way, not the only way (it also happens to be the most politically flammable way). A far more simpler solution is a UN resolution declaring the issue resolved and rendering all previous resolutions vis-a-vis refugees’ right of return to Israel proper null and void. The Palestinians would be required to support this resolution, and would likely receive the support of many Arab states.
It seems clear the recognition demand is either a stalling tactic or a particularly pernicious attempt to undermine Abbas in the West Bank. It is likely the former, but based on previous foolishness, the latter sadly cannot be ruled out.