With U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the warpath for peace talks, the first meaningful negotiations in years may be on the horizon for Israelis and Palestinians. But before that happens, the two sides must resolve a few preliminary hurdles, including one that's particularly tricky: Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish State.
Insisting on formal acceptance of the Jewish State is not a Likud innovation. In 2007, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made the same demand, saying "We won't hold negotiations on our existence as a Jewish state…whoever does not accept this, cannot hold any negotiations with me." Nor is it limited to Israeli politicians: In March, President Obama declared at a speech in Jerusalem, “Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state.”
In a speech before a joint session of Congress on May 24, 2011, Netanyahu explained the purpose and value of this position: “It is time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say: ‘I will accept a Jewish state.’ Those six words will change history. They will make clear to the Palestinians that this conflict must come to an end; that they are not building a state to continue the conflict with Israel, but to end it. They will convince the people of Israel that they have a true partner for peace.”
Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders have politely refused the offer, and continue to sidestep the question or simply flat-out deny Israel’s Jewish identity. In 2007, Mahmoud Abbas exhibited his linguistic agility on the topic, saying, “In Israel, there are Jews and others living there. This we are willing to recognize, nothing else.” Other times, Abbas has been more forthcoming with his opinion: “We're not talking about a Jewish state and we won't talk about one. For us, there is the state of Israel and we won't recognize Israel as a Jewish state."
Why bother? It is not entirely clear what Israel really has to gain by extracting a formal recognition of its Jewish character from the Palestinians—begrudging acceptance of this basic fact is hardly a cause for celebration. Beyond that, the long-term value of such acceptance is dubious: Will recognition of Israel’s Jewish character lead to additional security or the assurance of safety? Does an official PA statement carry any lasting value? At the end of the day, is it worth it to hold up negotiations over this?
Yes—emphatically. Palestinian acceptance of Israel as the Jewish State does not guarantee peace (by any means), but without it, negotiations are simply a waste of time. Recognizing the existence of the Jewish State is a vital step towards Palestinian recognition of the need for a Jewish State.
On a tactical level, recognition will signal that the Palestinian leadership is grounded in something resembling reality. You see, Israel is the Jewish State. For verification, please take a look at U.N. Resolution 181, Israel’s Declaration of Independence, or its national anthem. Better yet, listen to the piercing air-raid siren on Memorial Day and Holocaust Remembrance Day. At this point, Israel’s Jewish identity is not a contention or a goal or a dream or something that Israelis and Palestinians can agree to disagree about. It is a fact.
But more importantly, recognition moves the Palestinians a drop closer to affirming the enduring need for a Jewish State. After all, there have been many “states with Jews” that quickly became “states without Jews.” Over the past century, the once-sizable Jewish population in Arab countries has dwindled to practically zero as Jews in Syria, Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, and elsewhere were unceremoniously expelled or driven out. On their way out, these Jews were stripped of citizenship, had their land stolen, and were victims of attacks and pogroms. No matter how many countries there are with Jews, the existence of a Jewish State is categorically different—and essential. (See also: Europe.)
To sacrifice—even in a semantic way—the absolute primacy of Israel’s Jewish identity is to move back to the “state with Jews” model that has tragically failed in the past. By demanding recognition of Israel’s Jewish identity, Netanyahu has set the parameters for future negotiations: Israel will not come to the table unless Palestinians recognize that a Jewish State—with all its blemishes and inconsistencies—is an absolute necessity for the Jewish People.