Commentary

Netanyahu and the "Jewish State"

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

There are many obstacles to the negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. As if the issues of security, borders and natural resources were not already complicated, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. For many, the demand is a non-starter, designed to derail the negotiations. For some Israelis on the right, meanwhile, the whole discussion is beyond the point. In their view, given the weakness of the various Arab regimes, Israel should unilaterally impose its will, with or without their approval.

For his part, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected the demand and, according to reports by Haaretz’s Jack Khoury, has garnered the support of the Arab League in doing so: “The Arab League on Sunday endorsed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' rejection of Israel's demand for recognition as a Jewish state…. The United States wants Abbas to make the concession as part of efforts to reach a ‘framework agreement’ and extend the talks aimed at settling the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict....Benjamin Netanyahu has been Israel's first prime minister to make recognition of his country as a Jewish state a requirement for peace....Abbas complained on Saturday that Palestinians were being asked for something that had not been demanded of Arab countries that have previously signed peace treaties with Israel.”

Regional editorials have also expressed dismay and dissatisfaction with this Israeli precondition. The Saudi Gazette editorial, for example, notes “It’s safe to say then that Netanyahu has elevated the issue to a level it was not on before. Palestinians are in favor of a state as long as the question is about recognition of the fact, after a peace agreement, that Israel has a Jewish majority. But Netanyahu wants to change the definition to one that deals with discrimination by the majority of Jews against the Israeli Arab minority through various legislation proposed by right-wing parties.... The Palestinians can only accept a modest acknowledgement of Israel’s national existence, not the excessive and provocative demand being made by Netanyahu.”

Another Arab daily — the Khaleej Times — bemoans the fact that preconditions are discussed at all when it comes to the negotiations: “The core issues such as displacement of Arab and Jewish citizens, border demarcation and resources distribution are yet to be sorted out; and the difference of opinion seems to be too wide to bridge.... Obama has already raised political stakes for Netanyahu by saying that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is ‘sincere about his willingness to recognize Israel and its right to exist.’ This largesse on the part of the Palestinian leader should be more than enough for Tel Aviv to trade land for peace, and seal a deal that will come to stabilize the volatile Middle East region. Diplomacy stands a chance to succeed provided preconditions are done away with.”

There are suspicions that Israeli officials are using the issue in order to extinguish any possibility of finding a solution or having to make difficult choices. For example, in a recent editorial, the Gulf Today staff accuses Israel of “deceitfulness,” adding that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand for Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state is another big attempt to evade peace. The idea is apparently to restrict possible return options of Palestinian refugees and the rights of Israel’s large Arab minority. Netanyahu is trying to place the insurmountable hurdle so that he himself would not be blamed should the ongoing peace negotiations fail....Thankfully, the international community is keeping a close watch on Israeli atrocities. Just last week, a United Nations committee on Palestinian rights called on the Security Council to act quickly to address alarming developments in East Jerusalem, including increasing incursions by Israeli extremists and political leaders on the Al Aqsa Mosque compound.”

But with news of more Israeli building on Palestinian land, patience is running low in some quarters, with the Oman Tribune leading the charge for a referral to the International Criminal Court: “Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics revealed on Monday that the Zionist entity started building in 2013 twice the number of settler homes it constructed in 2012.... And more projects are being planned with the aim of flooding the West Bank and East Jerusalem with settlers so that whenever a Palestinian state becomes a reality, it is not viable....The talks are on the verge of collapse and it is Kerry’s determination that is keeping the peace talks going. So it now looks like the Palestinians have only one option and that is to take extreme measures. That is going to the International Criminal Court to have Israeli leaders tried for war crimes like the grabbing of Palestinian land and the indiscriminate killing of innocent Palestinian civilians.”

Netanyahu’s demands have run into some resistance even in Israel. Yedioth Ahronoth’s Shimon Shiffer, for example, worries that more construction will only isolate Israel even more: “When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed on U.S. soil, he rushed to declare that it takes three to tango for peace in the Middle East: The Americans and the Israelis who are already dancing, and the Palestinians who are insisting on remaining wallflowers. At the same time, however, the Central Bureau of Statistics released figures pointing to a massive increase of roughly 120 percent in settlement construction within the future Palestinian state's territory. As long as this is the situation, one can understand why Abbas and his men refuse to join the dance – and one can equally understand why American President Barack Obama's remarks Monday evening contained a strong whiff of despair.”

Others, meanwhile, are considering and recommending more extreme solutions to the status quo. In an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post, Caroline Glick believes that the best solution of the current impasse would be a unilateral move by Israeli officials in favor of the one-state solution: “For more than 25 years, due to successive Israeli governments’ preference for the ideal over the good, Israeli leaders have pursued chimerical peace processes with the PLO and doomed confederations with Jordan instead of considering the viability and the desirability of applying Israeli law to Judea and Samaria, and incorporating the areas and their Palestinian residents into Israel....From an American perspective, the incorporation of Judea and Samaria into Israel will require Washington to acknowledge that the two-state paradigm has been a disastrous failure, and to cease its funding of the Palestinian Authority and its armed forces.”

Finally, even among those who think that Glick’s recommendation is one step too far, many still believe that unilateral actions are more likely to produce results. Eitan Haber believes that Israel should take advantage of the current instability and uncertainty in the region : “Obama didn't have too much time for Bibi this week, but both he and his secretary of State, John Kerry, understand very well that time is running out and is not on the State of Israel's side. The most hackneyed cliché one can say is that time is on the side of whoever is on its side. It's a fact: Our security situation has never been better. Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, etc....Now of all times, when the Arab world is flat on its face and the Western world is hesitating and blinking, it may be the time to try and to try again and to try again to reach the end of the conflict and the end of the claims with the Palestinians. A reconciliation deal, a framework, a partial agreement, something.... It's possible that we should replace the generations-long and years-long hackneyed saying, and say these days: Is it the Jews who only understand force?”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.