Israel’s Political Identity as a Jewish State: Why Does It Matter?

As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu prepares for his meeting with President Barack Obama, and his first visit to Washington (where he is due to arrive on May 18) during his second turn in office, he faces a new-old issue that has reared its head in the Israeli-Palestinian context. Side by side with the familiar debates raging over the two-state solution, the meaning of UN Security Council Resolution 242 in terms of borders and settlement blocs, the so-called “right of return,” and the explosive question of Jerusalem—as well as the complex maneuvers in the broader regional context, and the dangerous hints of “linkage” with the Iranian nuclear project—the challenge this time has to do with the most basic of questions: What is Israel?

For most Israelis, the answer is fairly straightforward: This is the nation-state created by the Jewish national movement—Zionism—so that an ancient people could exercise the right of self-determination and take its rightful place among the community of nations. This was all too obvious to the thirty-three nations that voted on November 29, 1947, for UN General Assembly Resolution 181, which provided for partition and the creation of an Arab and a Jewish state; it was presumably as obvious to the Palestinians when they belatedly accepted 181 after more than forty years of conflict. But when pressed on this issue more recently, in late 2007—in the attempt to set the terms of reference for the negotiating process that began in Annapolis—the Palestinians balked, for several reasons:

  • From their present point of view, Israel’s definition as a Jewish state would constitute a retroactive recognition of the legitimacy of the Zionist movement—a notion that remains anathema to them;
  • In more practical terms—and with some reason—they see this as a bid to justify Israel’s rejection, almost across the board, of the Palestinian claim for a “right of return” for the 1948 refugees. Indeed, the reason most, if not all, Israelis resist even a limited return is the fear that it would open the floodgates and lead to the loss of Israel’s hard-won identity as the embodiment of Jewish sovereignty.
  • Politically, as he negotiates a truce with Hamas (in order to try to restore a semblance of PA control in Gaza), President Mahmoud Abbas has no wish to undermine his nationalist credentials with a repeat of his 2003 recognition of (gasp!) Jewish suffering.
  • In their relationship with Israeli Arabs—or, as they are called, the “1948” or “inside” Palestinians—the PA leaders fear that a recognition of Israel’s Jewish nature would perpetuate what they see as the Israeli Arabs’ political (and socio-economic) exclusion.

For all these reasons, what may have been obvious in 1988 is not even upheld in 2009. “Call it what you may, I will not recognize this ‘Jewish’ state,” Abbas insisted recently, reacting to an Israeli demand. This is a worrying attitude. While it may have been a tactical miscalculation on the part of Israel to demand such recognition as a precondition for talks—opening Israel to the accusation of looking for excuses to delay them—it will certainly be, as the Israeli government now warns, a prerequisite for the success of any attempt to stabilize a future relationship between the two sovereign states, once the Palestinians fully establish their own.

The reason is not that the Jewish people needs Palestinian recognition. Many critics of the Israeli position have indeed raised their eyebrows at the notion that, after 4,000 years, all of a sudden we cannot live unless our neighbors admit that we are a people. This is not the point. It is the Palestinians who need this act of recognition—much as it was an important act for Israel to accept, regardless of disputes about the past, that a Palestinian nation has now come into being, and we shall need to recognize its claim to self-determination in one form or another; much as it was crucial for the Catholic Church (not only for the Jews per se) to rid itself of an ancient prejudice. Unless the Palestinians themselves—leaders and people alike—come to the recognition that the story of what happened in this land is a story of national movements clashing, right against right, not the homeowners’ right against the invaders’ wrong; unless they let go of the notion that Israel, even if recognized officially as a state, is simply a colonial construct waiting to be swept away into the ash heaps of history, they will never be able to reconcile themselves to the compromises they will have to make to achieve peace. This would leave them easy prey to the promises of those who offer “a future without Israel,” and who would fight to the last Palestinian to see it achieved.

This is a message of great symbolic importance. As the ground is being prepared for talks, the Palestinians are hearing this message from Israel, whom they see as an enemy, but they should also be hearing it from their true friends.
Copyright 2013/2014 AJC