The politics of recognition
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The politics of recognition

Is Israel's 'Jewish state' demand a dead end?

Can the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be solved without the Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish state?

Is it enough for a future state of Palestine to recognize the reality of Israel but not the Jewish character of Israel?

The issue of recognition has been a sticking point throughout the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From the time of its creation in 1964, until Yasser Arafat’s 1988 declaration renouncing terrorism and calling for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, the PLO refused to recognize Israel’s legitimacy. The declaration paved the way to mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO and 20 years of on-and-off negotiations. When the sides resumed negotiations last year, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu introduced a new demand: that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has steadfastly refused, arguing that the PLO already recognized the fact of Israel and it’s not up to the Palestinians to recognize Israel’s character.

Such recognition would be a humiliation for the Palestinians, said Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team from 2004 to 2009. He called recognition “a technical legal act” and emphasized there is no precedent for recognizing a country’s character. The Jewish state demand is “an ideological condition,” he said, dismissing Israeli claims that the demand at its core signals an end of Palestinian claims and an end of conflict.

“A Palestinian leader should not have to sacrifice his own legitimacy in order to get America’s approval or an agreement with Israel,” Mr. Elgindy said. “End of claims will come at the end of negotiations necessarily because all of the claims have been satisfied. You don’t get the end of claims up front.”

Thomas Pickering, the U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1985 to 1988, said he understands why Prime Minister Netanyahu insists on recognition of Israel as Jewish, given the number of voices in the region who would like to expel the Jewish people, but he also understands why it’s so difficult for Mr. Abbas. Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would mean abandoning the Palestinian right of return to Israel, and “the bankruptcy of their own internal narrative,” said the ambassador, who grew up in Rutherford.

“The interesting thing is nobody anywhere, certainly the Palestinians, can contest Israel’s right to call itself what it wishes,” Mr. Pickering said. “In a peace treaty, the Palestinians will have to deal with an Israel that declares what it is.”

While Mr. Arafat and the PLO recognized the reality of Israel, it is questionable whether they accepted its legitimacy. The PLO’s 1988 transition came after the organization spent years building influence and legitimacy in the international community, while coupling its political track with deadly terrorist attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets, carried out by Mr. Arafat’s Fatah party and other PLO factions.

“Fatah in its purest form is not that different from Hamas,” Mr. Elgindy said. “Where they really differ is on the question of recognizing Israel….”

Hamas, the potential spoiler to any agreement between Israel and the PLO, remains steadfastly opposed to recognizing Israel. Its leaders believe that the PLO’s recognition of Israel without reciprocal recognition of Palestine was a mistake. Hamas has remained ideologically opposed to Israel’s existence and its 1988 charter declares that Israel will exist until Islam will destroy it, elevating the organization’s opposition from a nationalist position like the PLO’s to a religious obligation. And this is what makes moderation so difficult for Hamas.

“Hamas will never go down the road of even recognizing Israel as a member of the United Nations, let alone as a Jewish state,” Mr. Elgindy said. “Imagine what Hamas will do if Abu Mazen” – Mr. Abbas’ nom de guerre – “recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, abandoning – negating – the Palestinian narrative?”

The international community has demanded that Hamas renounce terrorism, recognize Israel, and accept past agreements signed by the PLO before it can receive recognition, but declarations such as those in Hamas’ charter make recognition of Israel impossible and stand in the way of Mr. Abbas’ attempts to pull Hamas under the PLO umbrella. Mr. Elgindy recognizes why the international community is so fixated on the language of Hamas’ charter, but said in the end it is the actions of the organization that matter more than its founding documents. He pointed to the Likud’s revisionist Zionist ideology, which at one point included all of the West Bank in its map of Greater Israel – an idea that is antithetical to the existence of a Palestinian state, and yet a Likud government now is negotiating just that.

“Charters are important but they’re not really what motivate the day-to-day political decisions of any organizations,” Mr. Elgindy said. “When the PLO formally renounced violence in 1988, that was more important than changing the words in the PLO charter. The same is true for Hamas.”

Asked if the Palestinians might be willing to accept a different wording, perhaps a more generic recognition of “two states for two peoples,” Mr. Elgindy said this is a matter of semantics for the negotiators. This hints that even the most seemingly intractable issues can be resolved with some creativity, which brings us back to the initial question of how much of a roadblock is the recognition demand.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has evolved through the years but it has always revolved in some form around a combination of territory, national identity, religion, historical narratives, and a sense of injustice, Daniel Kurtzer said. Mr. Kurtzer, who lives in New Jersey, was U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005. Despite the hurdles in the start-and-stop negotiations, there is nothing necessarily unsolvable about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he added.

“Both sides will not be happy with an outcome and therefore an outcome can’t aspire for mutual satisfaction, but an outcome can aspire to meet the minimum requirements of both sides,” he said.

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