At one time, everyone knew that peace would break out all over the Middle East if the Palestinians would just recognize Israel. But then the PLO went and spoiled things by recognizing Israel, so there had to be a new excuse for not ending the Occupation. The new demand was that the Palestinians had to recognize Israel's "right to exist". And now, to ward off any danger that peace might raise its ugly head at Annapolis, here's a timely new one: the Palestinians have to recognize that Israel exists; that it has a right to exist; and that it has the right to exist as a "Jewish state".
The implications of Israel's demanding recognition as a state of the Jewish people rather than a state of all its citizens are complex, and I'm going to work on a separate post about that. But one really basic issue came to mind today when I read (via Desertpeace) this Ha'aretz editorial on the subject. To sum up the article: Ha'aretz thinks it's absurd for the Israeli government to demand that the PLO recognize Israel as a "Jewish state", when it is the settlement policies of successive Israeli governments in the Occupied Palestinian Territories that have been, and continue to be, the greatest danger to Israel's Jewishness. But what struck me most when I read the article wasn't the strength or otherwise of Ha'aretz's argument: it was the realisation that Israelis don't seem to have a common understanding of what they mean by a "Jewish state"; yet they insist the Palestinians must recognize nonetheless that Israel is one.
When Olmert and Livni talk about Israel as a "Jewish state", they mean essentially that it is a state that is for Jewish people, even if they don't reside or have citizenship there. It would be very handy for them if they could force the Palestinians to accept this definition, because then they could go into final status talks with some of the more intractable issues - like how to resolve the Right of Return - pre-emptively swept off the table. After all, how can Palestinians have a right to return to their homes in a "Jewish state" when they're not even Jewish, and non-Jews shouldn't expect to be allowed to live in a "Jewish state" in the first place...
Various Israeli commentators have been up in arms this week because the PLO has made it clear it will never give Israel this kind of recognition. The PLO says that Palestinians, like everyone else, give diplomatic recognition to countries, not to demographic balances, religious leanings or political affiliations. In recognizing Iran, for example, they give formal acceptance to Iran's sovereignty, its people and its borders, but not to its religious orientation. If Iran wants to call itself "The Islamic Republic of...", that is purely an internal Iranian affair. It's "Iran" that international diplomacy recognizes, not the Islamic-ness or Republic-ness of its political system. Similarly, if Israel wishes to call itself "The Jewish State of...", that is an internal Israeli affair, which does not need and cannot demand recognition from the PLO or anyone else in the world community.
So what does the PLO recognize in regard to Israel? The PLO recognizes the state of Israel in its 1967 borders - an area which happens to have an overwhelmingly Jewish population - and is offering through its acceptance of the Saudi peace initiative a Right of Return that is implemented in agreement with Israel, i.e. a nominal one that won't change the demographic balance there. So they offer recognition to a state that is de facto Jewish, and recognize the right of that state to peace and security within its recognized borders.
The one thing they won't say is that Israel is formally a "Jewish state", i.e. a state for Jews. Just as a Jewish American might recognize that the USA is a Christian country in terms of its dominant population and cultural traditions, but would never accept that it should be formally designated a "Christian state", because that immediately defines Jews and other non-Christians as lesser citizens. For some outrageous no-doubt Islamofascist Jew-hating reason, the Palestinians similarly refuse to declare that Israel is constitutionally a state where Israelis of Palestinian descent are inferior citizens.
Now, in this Ha'aretz editorial, Ha'aretz also talks about the "Jewish state", and says that the Israeli government is preventing it coming about because of the settlements, which make it impossible to separate the two peoples. So Ha'aretz is talking about a "Jewish State" in terms of an Israel that emerges from a final peace settlement as a country with a large Jewish majority.
But what Ha'aretz calls a Jewish state, i.e. a Jewish-majority state, is not what Olmert and Livni mean by the term, i.e a state that constitutionally favors people of one religion over another. Ha'aretz is saying that Israel will be a Jewish state because it will be a country that is made up overwhelmingly OF Jews - which the PLO could accept. Olmert and Livni say it is a Jewish state because it is a country not OF Jews, but FOR Jews - which Palestinians do not accept.
It seems absurd that Israelis will have hysterical fits when the PLO says it doesn't recognize Israel as a "Jewish state", when Israelis themselves don't agree in first place what exactly they mean by a "Jewish state".
Israelis need to decide what it is they mean by a "Jewish state", before they accuse the Palestinians of being unreasonable in rejecting it. Right now, I suspect that some of them are happy to conflate the two different understandings of what a "Jewish state" is; perhaps so that when the PLO rejects Olmert's demand for a "state for Jews", they can pretend the PLO is rejecting too the idea of Israel as a "state of Jews". I suppose if you understand that the price of a universally-recognized Jewish-majority state in the 1967 borders is finally getting out of the Occupied Territories, and you really don't want to do that, it's a lot easier to derail peace talks by whipping up fears of being driven into the sea than to simply acknowledge you're not willing to pay the price. It's a bit like having the President of Iran say that the Occupation regime over Jerusalem will disappear from the pages of time, and then pretending that he really said he would "wipe Israel off the map"; because it's always easier to invoke the Hitler bogeyman than to answer Ahmadinejad's questions about why exactly Muslim-majority Palestine should be dismantled to make way for a sectarian Zionist state....
Maybe Israelis could take a short break from insisting on what the Palestinians must give them, and make up their minds what exactly it is they want. Then perhaps if they could actually listen to what they're being offered, they might even be pleasantly surprised to find it's something they could live with after all.
Photo: Anti-Zionist Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest the Israeli elections; Mea Shearim, March 2006. By Shabtai Gold.