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Hussein Ibish

Netanyahu’s subtle, insidious, unworkable demand

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently been reiterating the demand he has focused on since regaining power that Palestinians and other Arabs recognize Israel as not only a “Jewish state” but specifically as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” This demand has been flatly rejected not only by the Palestinian leadership, but more recently by the Arab League.
 
The demand for explicit Arab recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” is a relatively new phenomenon, and was not part of either the Oslo process or the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. It was formally introduced into the conversation for the first time during the Annapolis meeting of November 2007, in which then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert demanded the Palestinians make some kind of statement recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. They refused, and the Israelis asked President George W. Bush to do so in his address. Yet Bush simply reiterated language from the Balfour Declaration about Israel as “a homeland for the Jewish people,” which has very different political and legal connotations.
 
The reason the Americans avoided such a formulation at the time was that they agreed with the Palestinians that the demand, at that stage of negotiations, was an attempt to foreclose the refugee issue, and that such a step would be bad for negotiations as a whole because reciprocal compromises on that issue and Jerusalem would probably be required to reach a successful agreement. The Palestinians are obviously also concerned that any recognition on their part of Israel as a “Jewish state” might imply an acceptance of discrimination against the large Palestinian minority in Israel.
 
The Palestinian point since Annapolis has been that the Palestine Liberation Organization has already recognized Israel through the letters of mutual recognition that are the core documents of the Oslo process and all subsequent Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, and that Israel is free to define itself, as Palestine will be. The Palestinians rightly point out that it is extremely unusual if not unprecedented in international relations for a state to ask its neighbors to define its character. Many others agree that adding the issue to the negotiations introduces a new complication in an already vexed set of problems.
 
Since regaining power, Netanyahu has raised the stakes in two ways: first, because of the importance he has given the demand; second, in the specific language he is insisting on, which is exceptionally problematic from a Palestinian and Arab point of view.
 
The Netanyahu formulation – “the nation-state of the Jewish people” – is so crammed with subtle significance that it demands careful unpacking. It is a significant move away from the idea of Israel merely as “a Jewish state,” with its indefinite article and very broad range of potential interpretations. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis undoubtedly see Israel as a Jewish state, but there is absolutely no consensus among them about what that means, apart from the fact that there is a majority community that both sees itself and is defined by the government as “Jewish.”
 
Netanyahu’s version moves away from the indefinite article and imposes two definite articles that are probably the most significant aspect of this language. It is categorically “the nation-state,” nobody else’s and none other, of “the Jewish people,” a constituency that is implicitly clearly defined, discrete and readily identifiable.
 
What Netanyahu’s language essentially does with its definite articles is foreclose alternatives or pluralisms. In that sense, it represents a return not only to classical Zionism but even to an anachronistic pre-state ideology that privileges a global Jewish “national” identity over an Israeli one. Such categorical language cannot be entirely a matter of comfort for many in Jewish communities around the world who feel intense loyalty to their own nation-states.
 
From a Palestinian point of view, the language is unacceptable because it implies that Israel is not only a “Jewish state” because it has a Jewish ethnic majority and consequent self-definition, but that it “belongs” not to its citizens or its ethnic majority but rather to “the Jewish people” around the world and for all time. Netanyahu is asking Palestinians to accept that Jews (by Israel’s official definition of the term) around the world, no matter where they are and what, if any, connection they have to Israel or Palestine, enjoy political rights that are privileged and superior over any other group in a metaphysical, permanent and non-contingent manner.
 
The obvious implication here is that Jews around the world, most of whom are not Israeli citizens, have superior political and national rights in Israel to the Palestinian citizens of that state. Netanyahu is asking the PLO and other Palestinians to not only embrace and endorse Zionism, but a very old-fashioned Zionism at that.
 
Netanyahu is also asking Palestinians to accept Israel as a fait accompli, a reality, and a legitimate member state of the United Nations, but also as an entity that transcends itself and has a trans-historical, supra-political and even quasi-religious status as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” no matter who happens to live there or what they collectively decide. He’s not asking for recognition of the Israeli state; he’s asking for a permanent deed to the global Jewish community of the land and political rights in it for all time. This is a unique demand as far as I can tell in the history of international relations, and a completely unreasonable one at that.
 
In the end, to make a Palestinian-Israeli agreement work it may be necessary, especially after the refugee issue is resolved, to find language through which Jewish Israelis and Palestinians recognize each other’s right of self-determination in their respective states, and I don’t think this is unrealistic or unreasonable. But Netanyahu’s language is subtle, insidious and completely unworkable.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.ibishblog.com

  • Khaled

    Hussein Ibish makes a good point. Unfortunately, he's too concerned with appearing intelligent to explain the matter succinctly. Netanyahu's demand privileges non-citizens and non-residents over citizens and residents. In doing so, he undermines modern concepts of the state and the citizen, while supporting pre-modern concepts of the "nation" that existed prior to the modern nation-state period. Then again, Netanyahu's conception of the "Jewish nation" seems to align well with the Muslim concept of the ummah.

    October 3, 2010

  • Jacob

    The times of Saladin won´t come back. You have to arrange yourself in order to get at least part of it: just for the sake of the young generation! You may even dream of the old times and keep Remembrance Days, etc. But , seriously please come to an arrangement as follows. We agree that we do not agree. Let´s discuss our problems only by peaceful means! Palestinians are here to stay and so are Israelis, Nadia:"Arabs will take back palestine. You have arms, they have time. Long speech are not necessary" You may be right, but you may be wrong, too !If this alternative gets into your head, may be you have a chance, otherwise you will be doomed by history

    September 23, 2010

  • Jacob

    by using the word "aparthait" you mean you can explain anything. This is definielly not the case. Nobody stole anything from the so-called palestinians. Actually go back in history, even only until 1947. There was never a talk of a palestinian people and a land of their own. By definition a people must have a history of her own. The only day that you have not in common with the Arabs around Palesine is the NAKBA. People that lived in this area , defined themselves as Arabs, not Palestinians. But enough. Again if you study history , there has always been a situation where groups or people fought, some won, some lost. Here Palestinians want the extreme: all or nothing. That is your big problem! Now you accept a 2-state-solution, where in 1 part, only Arab Palestinians are allowed to live, whereas in Israel the Palestinians must be allowed to stay and... the must be a right of return of the refugees to their native places. Sounds clear for you, but for nobody else. part 1

    September 23, 2010

  • isidasi

    Jacob, you have apartheid. And apartheid is not love, is it ?

    September 23, 2010

  • isidasi

    Arabs will take back palestine. You have arms, they have time. Long speech are not necessary.

    September 23, 2010

  • Jacob

    Nadia,your heart is full of hatred. But your prejudice has nothing to with reality. If you don't accept facts, palestinians will live forever like parias. Only negotiations may perhaps lead to a seperate state.Take a chance

    September 22, 2010

  • usa1

    Let's get real. It is actually quite rare around the world for two ethnic or religious groups of equal size to share a nation state peacefully. This is Lebanon's problem! There is no dominant majority! Ethnic minorities can live peacefully as a minority, but once they reach a size equal to the previous minority, the fear starts and power struggles arise. Especially in the Middle East. Israel must remain a Jewish-majority nation in order to keep the peace, just as a new state called Palestine must be an Arab Muslim majority nation. Should this be put into words? No, you're right it is offensive, but any ideas that Palestinian refugees are going to return to Israel is ridiculous.

    September 22, 2010

  • isidasi

    Palestine is not Israel and will never be. This an arab country an d palestinian state. Jewwish should go back to Europe. Only arab jewish can stay.

    September 21, 2010

  • isidasi

    Peace without not recognizing Israel as a jewish state means the end of zinonism. And zinonnist knows it very well. That why they don't want peace.

    September 21, 2010

  • Ralph Seliger

    Any "demand" is potentially problematic, but surely a workable formula can be found. Many Jews see in Abbas' refusal here a defacto rejection of the two-state solution---of two states for two peoples. The UN specified that the Palestinian Mandate would be divided between a Jewish state and an Arab state, with the prospect of Jewish and Arab minorities living in the other state. Instead of simply refusing Netanyahu's formulation, wouldn't it be better for the Palestinian negotiators to recognize Israel as the Jewish state endorsed by the UN in 1947, with the explicit understanding that non-Jewish citizens of Israel are treated equally under the law? Otherwise, many Jews see Abbas as continuing to advocate a full Arab right of return that would threaten Jewish sovereignty.

    September 21, 2010

  • Jacob

    One must accept that many Muslim countries calle themselves "Islamic ..." .Islam is the state religion. Additionally remember your own fragile balance, regarding the religious status. This balancr makes it difficult for you, Lebanon, to integrate the Palestinian refugees.They are Sunnis and would definitelly change the balance.And see how you people fight for an equilibrium. So why not Israel?

    September 21, 2010