The Mistake of Demanding Recongition

In the last few years a new demand has come out to the forefront during discussions of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. This is the demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish State. Word it however you want, recognize the Jewish nature of Israel, recognize the historic connection between Israel and the Jewish people, it doesn’t really matter. What it comes down to is a demand for recognition. It makes sense in its own way, I guess. Everyone wants the closure of validation, so why would Israel be different?

The only problem is, it doesn’t really matter if the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state or not. In real terms, how does it matter? I think an argument could be made that in terms of the ideological battle it would be important, or in terms of the propaganda battle, or world opinion it could be very beneficial for Israel to get that recognition. But here in Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza, it wouldn’t change anything at all. It’s a rhetorical game. More than that it’s a rhetorical game that, at the end of the day, makes Israel’s position weaker, not stronger. Now, a genuine recognition would be amazing, but that is sure not going to happen through a peace treaty, that is something that will come much later as the sides come to be more secure in their new situation. Real recognition takes trust, and trust takes time.

Now, everyone (or at least many of you) are going to jump up and down after reading the last paragraph and say, “But Begin demanded recognition from Sadat in 1979.” Yes, he did, but Egypt was the first Arab country to have relations with Israel. It was a ground breaking situation, but we have moved on from there. Normalization with the Arab world as a whole would be wonderful, but Israel is half way there already, and the situation with Iran has just accelerated connections between Israel and the Sunni Arab nations of the Middle East. Recognition or no, that wall has been broken down.

Israel is a fact. Israel as a Jewish state is a fact. By requiring the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Israel gives them a valuable chip at the negotiating table, a meaningless but valuable chip. Not only that, but Israel’s insistence on this recognition begs the question, “Is Israel legitimate if they need our recognition?” It gives ideas to all those BDSers out there, “Maybe if enough people or countries don’t recognize Israel, we will win.” There isn’t another country in the world that we talk about this issue of recognition with, this is something that is an issue of a new country. Israel is not a new country. North Korea, almost everyone in the world can agree, is the international boogie man. No one talks about not recognizing them as a nation, or revoking their recognition.

We can also think about de facto recognition, which Israel has all around the globe. You don’t have to have relations with a country to recognize it in a de facto way. Every time we hear “The Zionist Entity” we are seeing de facto recognition at work, it is merely the way these countries are separating between de facto and de jure recognition. There was a time when de facto recognition was a question, but that time ended in 1973. The War for Independence, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, these were actual serious attempts to wipe Israel off the map, to destroy it.

The Yom Kippur War was the final attempt to actually destroy the state of Israel through conventional means. Every conflict Israel has been involved in since then did not have the same kind of threat, no one felt like Israel was about to be overrun, no one felt Israel’s existence was in jeopardy. There is no country in the world today that actually believes that Israel’s existence can be ended though conventional means, and that is the very definition of de facto recognition. The entire world has given Israel De facto recognition, and it has been that way for the last 42 years.

This issue of recognition is only a problem for Israel, but I would posit, it is a problem of Israel’s own making. Israel has all the recognition that any country needs, it has de jure recognition of the United Nations along with all the major countries of the world, it has de facto recognition from the entire world, and it has de jure recognition of its status as a Jewish state by the UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council and most of the major countries of the world. All arguments should stop there. So why don’t they? Why do I read panicked headlines like “PA GOING TO REVOKE RECOGNITION OF ISRAEL!!”?

Why? Because as long as Israel demands recognition above and beyond that which is given to every other country, beyond that which is requested by any other country, we encourage the world to ask why. It is an issue because Israel makes it an issue. It is a waste of time, negotiating capital, and good will, which weakens Israel’s position instead of strengthening it. So why would Netanyahu make this such a fundamental demand? I can think of two reasons Bibi might hold so strongly to this demand.

The first reason is that Bibi knows the Palestinians don’t really have any chips to play, and he feels that by giving them something to give in on, he may be able to give in on more himself. Making this symbolic gesture a victory for the Israelis, he might be able to make some compromises he wouldn’t otherwise be able to. This might indeed be a shrewd negotiating tactic, the problem is, agreeing to it, could be a poison pill that the Palestinian leadership could not survive. Any Palestinian government who agreed to this, rhetorical or not, would face a severe backlash from the Palestinian street. It would take a very brave Palestinian leader to take such a bold step, A Palestinian Sadat, so tired from war that he believes compromise is the only way. But I don’t think Abbas is Sadat, and I don’t think he is strong enough to accept that demand. Silence on the issue, no problem, but to openly capitulate on that would be very difficult, possibly even fatal for Abbas, and if he did accept, it could very well lead to a Palestinian civil war that would cause even more damage to Israel and the chances for progress.

The second reason is that Bibi knows the neighborhood that we live in is in really bad shape right now, and that any independent Palestinian state would quickly become a haven for ISIS and other Islamic radical groups, who would clearly make attacking Israel from the West Bank their top priority. With this in mind, Bibi wants to maintain the status quo of the post second intifada situation, which has been the most stable time in history for Israel, economically, diplomatically and in terms of security. So he makes this demand, allowing Israel to have cover, and for the Palestinians to be blamed, when negotiations break down (last time, the next time, doesn’t really matter which negotiations.) This cover, Bibi might think, will keep the diminishing of Israel’s international standing limited to a slow leak, giving him time to ride out the unrest in the Middle East before establishing a Palestinian state, finding some other internationally acceptable solution, or doing irrevocable damage to Israel’s international standing.

The problem with this tactic is that Israel’s international standing is now diminishing, not at a slow leak, but a steady stream. Not a week goes by without a story about a musician or university, not a week goes by without a story about another government recognizing Palestine or labeling Israeli products. This is not something we have the time to ride out.

Israel needs to stop putting the question of recognition front and center. The more Israel talks about needing recognition, the more people all around the world think Israel needs recognition. The more people think Israel needs recognition, the bigger the question of whether Israel is legitimate or not. Israel’s legitimacy is a settled fact. It has received the same needed recognition as every other country. Why would we continue to make it a question, even when we know there is no benefit in it for Israel practically, and we know that it just strengthens the arguments of Arab governments and the BDS crowd? We need to take this issue off the table and move on. We should focus on demands that have a practical effect on the Israeli people.

About the Author
Michael Hilkowitz holds degrees in History and Secondary Education from Temple University and is a graduate of the Philadelphia High School for International Affairs. He is currently a Masters student in Security and Diplomacy Studies at Tel Aviv University. Living in Israel since 2012, he formerly served as the Chief Content Office for The Israel Innovation Fund, a 501.c.3 working to promote Israeli culture, art, and humanities innovation abroad.
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