In Jerusalem yesterday, President Obama made a poignant plea for courage, fairness, and empathy to the Israeli people. It was an inspiring speech. But there was one line—just half a sentence—that left me scratching my head: “Palestinians,” the President declared, “must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state.”
Since 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that the Palestinians recognize Israel “as” a Jewish state, a demand flatly rejected by President Mahmoud Abbas. The problems with Netanyahu’s formulation have been ably explained by Sari Nusseibeh, Hussein Ibish, Hassan Jabareen, and Joseph Levine, among others. The PLO, they point out, has already recognized Israel. Formally recognizing it as a Jewish state, however, would imply Palestinian acceptance of a subordinate status for the country’s 1.7 million Muslim, Christian, and Druze citizens. It seems unlikely that so illiberal a proposition would be embraced by the United States’ first black president, a man who proclaimed that the United States Constitution, a document “stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery,” had “at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law.” Surely the President does not advocate staining a historic peace agreement by entrenching inequality in its terms. Instead, “true stability,” as he declared yesterday, “depends upon establishing a government that is responsible to its people, one that protects all communities within its borders, while making peace with countries beyond them.” That is as true for Israel as it is for Syria.
Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would also signal endorsement of its longstanding refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral homes. Most Palestinian leaders understand that Israel is unlikely to consent to refugee return in a peace agreement, but President Obama must be aware that no Palestinian government can renounce the refugees’ right to return. That would be tantamount to denying Palestinians’ attachment to places that are part of our history, our memories, and our culture. Indeed, Palestinians can no more forswear our attachment to Jaffa or the Galilee, than Jews can forswear theirs to East Jerusalem or Hebron. And why shouldn’t a religious Jew aspire to live and study in the shadow of the Tomb of the Patriarchs? Why shouldn’t a Palestinian refugee aspire to rebuild her family’s home in Tantura? Even if realizing those aspirations is politically infeasible at this juncture, we need not foreclose their realization in the future.
Self-determination, after all, does not require perpetual segregation. The fact is that both Palestinians and Israelis seek to live, work, and worship on both sides of the Green Line. In the short run, the states of Israel and Palestine could issue work and residency permits to each others' citizens without fundamentally altering the democratic balance of power in either country. And looking ahead, whatever modifications are made to the Green Line as part of a territorial compromise, both sides should aim to achieve freedom of movement across it, subject only to reciprocal and narrowly tailored security and customs regulations. Obviously, building such a system would not be an easy feat, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as an impossible dream. The Central America-4 Border Control Agreement between El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua and the Schengen arrangements in Europe offer models worth exploring. Both regions were arenas of ideological conflict—hot and cold—until fairly recently. And if more than two-dozen European states can manage security cooperatively across an area of more than four million square kilometers, surely the states of Palestine and Israel could do the same in a space one hundred times smaller, particularly with assistance from the international community. As President Obama reminded us yesterday, building a durable peace requires us to have not only “the wisdom to see the world as it is,” but also “the courage to see the world as it should be.”
So what can it mean to recognize that Israel “will be” a Jewish state? President Obama undoubtedly will be pressed to elaborate on that formula in the months ahead. What I hope he will say is the following:
"Achieving peace today requires us to delimit a border between two states, with a view toward achieving self-determination for the two peoples who share the Holy Land. Palestinians must recognize that, as a result of this territorial compromise, Israel will be a democratic state with a Jewish majority. Self-determination, however, is not antithetical to minority rights; it is contingent upon them, and both states must respect the rights of ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities within their borders whatever demographic trends or pressures they face.
But that is not all. Peace should be built on reconciliation, not just recognition. To that end, each people should acknowledge the others' history of disenfranchisement and suffering and their consequent desire for a sanctuary from a world plagued by bias and insecurity. Each people should acknowledge the others' attachment to the Holy Land—to all of the land. And both peoples should work toward a future in which the border they negotiate today is a bridge, not a wall, between them."