On the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state: can the Palestinians seize the initiative?

Ahmed Badawi
3 September 2009

In his latest European tour, the Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu repeated his demand that the Palestinians must accept Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people before peace could be achieved. In the press conference with Gordon Brown in London he claimed that "recognition is the pivot of peace." Again, another Israeli government comes to office and tries to establish new rules for the negotiation game. Not surprisingly, Palestinians reject such a demand. But in doing so, are they losing a rare opportunity to seize the initiative?

The fact that the Israeli government and the majority of Israeli Jews need such an acknowledgment immediately gives Palestinians considerable power. Do they appreciate the full extent of Israeli Jewish dependence on their good will for their sense of long-term security and acceptance in the region?

Instead, Palestinians refuse to bargain and end up taking a defensive position in a game in which first movers usually have an advantage. Instead of outright rejection, which is understandable given the oppressive reality of occupation, Palestinians might gain much if they could think again and articulate a stronger position for themselves. In exchange for such a deeply-felt need by Israelis Jews, what can Palestinians gain in return?

Framing the question in this way is already disgraceful from a Palestinian perspective. There is nothing to bargain about, after already accepting, more or less, the loss of 78% of historic Palestine. The case is clear. Israel is an oppressing, occupying force, and the international community must therefore adopt a morally and legally consistent position by ensuring that the Palestinians are given back their lost rights. Also, bargaining is not worth it since Israel only understands the logic of power as opposed to the power of logic. While this is a principled even admirable position in some respects, the question must be asked whether there are other positions that are worth exploring, ones that could prove to be more effective in helping the Palestinians secure their rights. The choice in a conflict should never be between bargaining and fighting. The real challenge is to find the best mix of both, given the continuously evolving regional and global contexts.

One of the problems occupied Palestinians have in accepting Israel as a Jewish state is the impact that this would have on the living conditions of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. They represent about 20% of the population, and in most respects they do not enjoy the same rights as their Jewish compatriots. Recognising Israel as a Jewish state is tantamount to a repudiation of their history.  This is a danger that Palestinians clearly recognise. But what they may have not realised is that the recent Israeli demand is actually an opportunity to transform this danger into a benefit. Occupied Palestinians can seize the initiative by declaring that in order for them to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, all forms of discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel must first be removed. In other words, they need to change the fear into a condition, which is exactly what Israel has excelled in doing over the course of this conflict. This way, the Palestinians will put right-wing Israelis in the same kind of dilemma that the Palestinians are currently in. There is of course an obvious and an irreconcilable contradiction here, one that the Israeli government could be forced to confront, to its embarrassment as a supposedly democratic state, by a smarter Palestinian negotiator.

The Palestinians should compel the current Israeli government to openly confront an intractable dilemma: it is not an option to keep breaking international law and to continue to hold the people and property of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in a legal limbo forever, by not making them part of Israel in order to dodge the demographic threat, and at the same time denying them sovereignty in order to allow for unhindered Jewish expansion. There are three incompatible goals here from the perspective of Israeli Jews: keeping their holy land with the Palestinians living in it under their control; sustaining a democratic form of government; and demanding a uni-ethnic state of their own. In other words, Palestinians can seize the initiative by throwing the ball back into the Israeli court. Simply put, Israeli Jews need to realise that they cannot have it all, and it is time that they must decide, unambiguously, on what the order of their collective preferences is. This is an internal Israeli Jewish conversation and so far it has been successfully dodged and postponed by continuously putting the Palestinians on the defensive. Facilitating this conversation must be given the highest priority by the international community (more on this below).

Jews, like Palestinians, and any other national group, have the right to self-determination. This is a matter of principle. It is therefore up to them to decide whether they wish to perceive themselves as a nation and for their state to be defined in whichever way they please. But this can only be possible if Palestinians are also allowed to practice their right to self-determination, including their right to viable, sovereign territory currently denied them by an illegal military occupation, and the right of those of them who are Israeli citizens to enjoy legal and economic equality. Palestinians can convincingly argue that in order for them to accept the right of Israeli Jews to define themselves as a nation, Israeli Jews must reciprocate by accepting the right of the Palestinians to do the same, and that the only credible practical expression of such a recognition is not a state on paper but an immediate and comprehensive end to occupation and a transformation of the social status of Israeli Palestinians.

That leaves the most intractable problem, i.e. the Palestinian "right of return". The demand, put as a condition, from the current Israeli government is a direct reflection of the worst nightmare imaginable to Israeli Jews, to be dwarfed and turned into a minority by an influx of a few million hostile Palestinians, as they see it. There have been some solutions to the refugee problem, in the Beilin-Abu Mazen and the Nusseibah-Ayalon documents and in the Geneva accords. And the Arab Peace Initiative, currently the most credible peace offer from the Arab side, handles this problem in a way that should be acceptable to most Israeli Jews, by lowering Palestinian rightful demands and opting instead for an "agreed" solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees, in the context of a comprehensive resolution to the conflict and not before, one must add.  

None of these solutions are convincing for most Palestinians. This highlights a serious and an intractable dilemma. Israel cannot keep the territories forever and at the same time be a democracy and a uni-ethnic Jewish state. Palestinians, in their turn, cannot keep fighting for a state of their own while at the same time continuing to demand the return of all Palestinian refugees to Israel. It is true that for Palestinians, having to choose between ending the occupation and winning an independent state, on the one hand, and the implementation of the right of return, on the other hand, is a most painful position. The right of the refugees to self-determination is enshrined in international law, and the right of return has formed Palestinian identity over the last decades. But given the balance of power at the moment, the implementation of this right is not conceivable anytime soon. What to do? No one yet has managed to come up with a satisfactory answer. A sensitively-facilitated, cool-headed internal Palestinian conversation on this topic must commence without delay. Instead of wreaking havoc in the region and beyond, by trying to square circles and giving free reign to greed on the one hand and pride on the other, both Israelis and Palestinians should be cajoled into confronting some of their deep, almost impossible to resolve, contradictions.

The bottom line is that Israelis and Palestinians need to realise that if they wish to continue fighting for the next 100 years until one side destroys the other then they should say so explicitly. The international community can then invest its limited energy where there will be a better return. Both sides must see that, given their balance of power at the moment, such a decisive victory cannot be achieved anytime soon. And if they are half-way sincere in ending their conflict, then both Israelis and Palestinians must be told over and over again that what is desirable to them, from either a legal or a moral point of view, is not necessarily feasible.

International diplomacy has so far done so much to harm Israelis and Palestinians. The language of compromise, win-win solutions, peace agreements that are not worth the paper they are written on, setting pre-conditions against this or that party, in contravention of international law, this and more reflect a lack of sensitivity and considerable ignorance of some of the more subtle dynamics of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. The international community needs to be less self-righteous, to stop preaching and to radically shift its agenda in order to make it consistent with rules of international legitimacy. The major task is two-fold: 1) the international community should put all its weight behind a freeze of the situation on the ground as it stands at the moment, in particular the expansion of the Jewish illegal presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 2) Once this takes place, the international community should then facilitate these parallel internal Israeli Jewish and Palestinian conversations. History has shown us that no deal could be imposed on either Israelis or Palestinians from outside. In both societies, there is a dire need to rearticulate the national consensus in accordance with international law, which ultimately provides the best guarantee for their long-term security. Neither society can do this on its own. Well-guided and non-ideological external help, with some luck, can turn the Israeli Palestinian conflict from being a destructive force into being a catalyst and a model for a socially-just peace in the region.

At the heart of this model lies the mutual recognition by Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs of their respective right to self-determination. If the conflict is to be peacefully resolved, the current Israeli government must realise that one cannot be had without the other, that they cannot demand Palestinians to recognise them as a Jewish state while they are not prepared to reciprocate. On the other hand, despite the fact that Palestinians have a much stronger case from the perspective of international law, they need to realise that the implementation of any law is a reflection of the balance of power on the ground. Without a smarter strategy of engagement, one that turns the vulnerabilities of their opponents into sources of strength for themselves, Israel will simply continue, largely unhindered, to determine both the rules of the game and the outcome of play as well.

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