A lot has changed in the Middle East since the Arab League passed the 1967 Khartoum resolution, which established the “main principles by which the Arab States abide”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations. The infamous “three no’s” of Khartoum have been replaced by a much less belligerent call for the establishment of a Palestinian state. But the original “no recognition of Israel” has evolved into “no recognition of Israel as a Jewish state,” and what just a few years ago was an absolute non-issue now might threaten the success of the entire peace process.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has elevated a Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, or as the nation-state of the Jewish people (he has been using both phrases interchangeably), to a non-negotiable precondition to any agreement.

“Our first and most unshakable demand is recognition,” he said last month at a conference in Tel Aviv. “I would say that this is the first foundation for peace between us and the Palestinians.” Palestinian leaders, on the other hand, are adamant that they “will never accept under any circumstances” such a demand. “It’s our right not to recognize the Jewish state,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas insisted in a speech earlier this month.

Thus, Netanyahu’s requirement, possibly a key to peace in the Middle East, raises a plethora of questions — the answers of which are unknown even to many people who have dealt with the conflict for a long time: Why does Netanyahu insist on it? What is implied by labeling Israel a “Jewish state,” especially for the country’s non-Jewish minorities? Was Netanyahu the first one to add this issue to the equation? Do the citizens of Israel support his all-or-nothing approach. And what does the world think of it all?

Since the Oslo Accords in 1995, the international community has formed somewhat of a consensus over the core issues. Following the Geneva Initiative, the Clinton parameters and George W. Bush’s Road Map, the contours of Middle East peace seem more or less obvious: a Palestinian state within adjusted pre-1967 lines, East Jerusalem as capital and a “just and agreed upon” solution to the refugee question. But somehow Netanyahu’s demand for recognition as a Jewish state hasn’t really been seriously discussed by world leaders, and the international community doesn’t seem sure about how to deal with this issue.

Some, hoping to nip the discussion in the bud, will simply point out that the United Nations’ 1947 Partition Plan explicitly mentioned a “Jewish state.” A case in point is Russia’s ambassador to Israel, Sergey Yakovlev, who told this reporter a few months ago, ”Why should we again recognize the Jewish state of Israel? We did it in ‘48.” (Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan this week called Netanyahu’s demand for Palestinian recognition “nonsense.” After all, the UN already recognized a Jewish state, he said, “and now we’re going to ask for such recognition from the Palestinian state? We’re asking for a recognition of our state’s nature from a state that doesn’t even exist?”)

Still, given the important, nay, central role this issue has assumed in the current peace talks, it is somewhat surprising that no serious public discussion has taken place on how to deal with Netanyahu’s request. Is it justified because genuine peace requires the acceptance of the Jewish state, or merely a stalling tactic on the prime minister’s part, intended to obstruct negotiations and deflect blame toward the Palestinians’ ostensible intransigence and anti-Semitism?

Over the last two years or so, I have asked foreign ministers, diplomats and other senior officials from many different countries what they think about pressuring the Palestinians into recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Few were able or willing to express a clear, principled stance on the issue, either in favor or against.

EU Ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Andersen (photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)

EU Ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Andersen (photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)

“I don’t think we have any clear position on that because we’re not 100% sure what is meant by this concept of a Jewish state,” the European Union’s ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, said earlier this year. I asked him why the EU does not formulate an official position on an issue Netanyahu has declared to be a prerequisite to any peace agreement. He replied: “All I can say is that this is for the parties to discuss. And I’m not a party to these [Israeli-Palestinian peace] talks.”

A short while later, Faaborg-Andersen’s spokesperson clarified in a statement that “the EU has not pronounced a position on the question of recognition of Israel as a Jewish state among other reasons because we’re not sure about the implications of this on other final status issues. Therefore, we think that this is an issue to be discussed between the parties.”

This week, I posed the same question to the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, who was on an official visit to Israel. It’s a “delicate and complicated” issue, he said, refusing to make a definite statement. “I will not interfere, as a representative of a European institution, in this debate. Not to escape from your question — I think that this is first of all not my duty, being here, to interfere.”

The idea of recognition was actually invented by Israeli leftists

Israel’s desire to be recognized a Jewish state is much older than the current round of US-brokered peace talks. Ever since Netanyahu accepted, in principle, the creation of a Palestinian state, during his Bar-Ilan University speech in 2009, he has made recognition a key element. “If the Palestinians recognize Israel as the State of the Jewish people, then we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state,” he said at the time.

But the issue came up even under Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert. On November 13, 2007, right before the Annapolis peace conference, then foreign minister (and current justice minister and chief peace negotiator) Tzipi Livni raised the issue in a meeting with senior Palestinian Authority officials.

Then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei, during a meeting in Jerusalem in November, 2007 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

Then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei, during a meeting in Jerusalem in November, 2007 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

“Israel the state of the Jewish people — and I would like to emphasize the meaning of ‘its people’ is the Jewish people,” Livni said, according to minutes of the meeting leaked to Al Jazeera. “I didn’t ask for recognizing something that is the internal decision of Israel. Israel can do so, it is a sovereign state. [We want you to recognize it.] The whole idea of the conflict is … the entire point is the establishment of the Jewish state.”

The idea even predates the 2007 talks, and its significance was originally perceived by Israeli left-wingers, as journalist Yair Rosenberg recently pointed out. Rosenberg quotes Yaacov Lozowick, who in his book “Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel’s Wars” tells the story of some two dozen Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals — “there was not a hard-line militant among them” — who in July 2001, when Ariel Sharon was prime minister, “convened to build a bridge over the ruins of peace.”

Their idea was to issue a joint declaration calling on the two sides to resume negotiations. “The Palestinians were willing to join in stating that there should be two independent states alongside one another, but the Israelis, alerted by the fiascos of Camp David and Taba to a nuance they had previously overlooked, demanded that the statement clearly say that Israel would be a Jewish State and Palestine an Arab one,” Lozowick wrote. “The Palestinians refused. Jews, they said, are a religion, not a nationality, and neither need nor deserve their own state. They were welcome to live in Israel, but the Palestinian refugees would come back, and perhaps she would cease to be a Jewish State.”

Stymieing calls for a Palestinian “right of return” is, of course, one main reason behind Netanyahu’s insistence for recognition. “Recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people means completely abandoning the ‘right of return’ and ending any other national demands over the land and sovereignty of the State of Israel,” he said last October. “This is a crucial component for a genuine reconciliation and stable and durable peace.”

More than three-quarters of Israeli Jews believe it is important that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state

The prime minister’s critics argue that he has created an artificial obstacle to peace, because he knows the Palestinians will never concede this point.

“Do you think that any Palestinian leader in his right mind can ever accept this?” senior Palestinian official and former peace negotiator Nabil Shaath asked rhetorically in a recent interview with Haaretz. “Or is this simply intended to make it impossible to sign a peace agreement with Israel?”

But the right of return is only secondary in importance. Netanyahu’s declared main reason for the insistence on recognition is what he sees as the Arab refusal to accept a Jewish presence in the Holy Land. This is “at the root of the conflict,” he said in late January.

“This conflict has gone on for nearly 100 years,” he elaborated, telling the story of how a Jewish immigration office was attacked by rioting Palestinians in 1921. “There were no settlers there… There were no territories. There was a basic objection to any Jewish presence.” This sentiment has continued to fester in the Palestinian heads ever since, Netanyahu suggested, leading to a struggle “against the very existence of the Jewish state, against Zionism or any geographic expression of it, any State of Israel in any border.”

The Zionist movement and various Israeli governments agreed to recognize a Palestinian state, “but this conflict has gone on because of one reason: the stubborn opposition to recognize the Jewish state, the nation-state of the Jewish people,” he said. “To end the conflict, they must recognize that in our land, this land, in the Jewish homeland, there are two peoples.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu seen with Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (L) and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (R)at the "Bible Study Club" held at the PM's official Jerusalem residence on September 17, 2013. Netanyahu has revived a tradition started by Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu seen with Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (L) and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (R) at the ‘Bible Study Club’ held at the PM’s Jerusalem residence on September 17, 2013. Netanyahu has revived a tradition started by Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

The Israeli public seems to back Netanyahu’s position. According to a poll published earlier this month by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, more than three-quarters of Israeli Jews believe “it is important that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people” as part of an agreement. Only 21 percent said it was not important.

“Among those who believe recognition is important, 41% believe it is important because it is a recognition of the basic principle of Zionism, 29% because it would help Israel counter a demand that it become a ‘state of all its citizens,’ and 19% because it would be compensation for Israel recognizing the Palestinian state as the state of the Palestinian people,” the Israel Democracy Institute stated in a press release.

According to the poll, a large majority (63%) of Israeli Jews who describe themselves as left-wing support Netanyahu’s demand for recognition. Indeed, even Yossi Beilin — a former cabinet minister and icon of the Israeli left — recently joined those who advocate for a Palestinian recognition of Israel’s Jewish nature.

Mahmoud Abbas (right) and Yossi Beilin meet in Ramallah, August 2008 (photo credit: Omar Rashidi/FLASH90)

Mahmoud Abbas (right) and Yossi Beilin meet in Ramallah, August 2008 (photo credit: Omar Rashidi/FLASH90)

“I believe Israeli leaders will be willing to pay a high price in exchange for such recognition,” he wrote in The New York Times a few months ago. “Both sides should embrace the formula proposed 10 years ago by the Geneva Initiative, which recognized the right of both parties to statehood and ‘Palestine and Israel as the homelands of their respective peoples.’”

President Shimon Peres — Beilin’s former boss — on the other hand, reportedly considers Netanyahu’s insistence on recognition “unnecessary.” According to media reports, Peres recently called it an impediment to the current US-led peace negotiations.

Washington itself, however, clearly deems Netanyahu’s demand reasonable. “Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state,” President Barack Obama said in Jerusalem during his March 2013 visit. A so-called framework agreement, which the US is expected to present in the near future to advance the talks, is said to describe Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people.”

Other states — mostly Israel’s staunchest allies – accept this notion as well. “Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is absolute and nonnegotiable,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last month in the Knesset. He used the phrase “Jewish state” no fewer than seven times during that speech.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in December 2012 that she “would like to see a Jewish state — Israel — and a Palestinian state,” and even enshrined her country’s responsibility toward Israel “as a Jewish and democratic state” in her latest coalition contract. Romanian President Traian Basescu, too, expressed support for Netanyahu’s demand, saying in January that “if [the Palestinians] want peace, they must follow the request of the Israeli people.”

But unequivocally clear statements such as these are rare. Many officials, especially European ones, are caught off guard when asked whether they support the demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. This is mainly because their respective governments have never formulated a position on so nebulous an issue. They have a clear stance on the legality or illegality of West Bank settlements, and oppose incitement, but haven’t bothered to think about the legitimacy of Israel’s desire to be recognized as a Jewish state.

Jerusalem circa 1840, by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (photo via the Smithsonian website)

Jerusalem circa 1840, by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (photo via the Smithsonian website)

Some prominent Western politicians apparently do not accept Netanyahu’s argument about the Palestinian refusal to accept any Jewish sovereign presence in the Land of Israel.

“I don’t think that after all, on the Palestinian side, this would be a nonnegotiable obstacle,” former Dutch foreign minister Uri Rosenthal, for instance, told me last year. Abbas “could easily say” that Israel is a Jewish state, Rosenthal asserted; the PA president’s current refusal to do was understood, the ex-minister indicated, as a case of holding on to an high-priced bargaining chip in the negotiations. Other Western officials have also indicated to me that they do not believe the idea of recognizing a Jewish state in the Middle East could be unacceptable to Palestinians for deeply ingrained ideological reasons.

Yet the Palestinian leadership is outspoken about its reasons for rejecting the Jewish state definition Netanyahu insists they endorse. “It would be dangerous to recognize this because this would mean our acceptance of the dissolution of our own history and ties and our historic right to Palestine. This is something that we will never accept under any circumstances,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki said last month in an interview.

Accepting Israel as a Jewish state would also “raise fears” about the fate of Israel’s Arab citizens, Al-Maliki said. “They are already second-class citizens, so how will they be affected by the Judaization of the state?”

‘Israel as Jewish state is another way of having everyone in the region accept the legitimacy of Israel’s presence. And that’s a sine qua non for peace and reconciliation’

Concern for Israel’s Arab minority is the most widely quoted reason why Western political and civil rights groups view Netanyahu’s demand with skepticism. But the prime minister insists that enshrining the state’s Jewish character will do no harm to anyone.

“We’re not asking them to change their religion and they have full civic rights,” Netanyahu said earlier this year in an interview with Canada’s CTV News, referring to Israel’s non-Jewish minority. “Arab citizens of Israel serve in the Knesset, our parliament, they serve in the government, they serve on the Supreme Court. It’s full civic equality. But what we say is that this state, with its flag, with its symbols, its national holidays and the ability to accept Jews from around the world — that’s the nation-state of the Jewish people, with full civic rights to those who are non-Jews.”

The Palestinians appear uncompromising vis-à-vis a possible recognition of the Jewish state. “This is out of the question,” Abbas told The New York Times last week. Egypt and Jordan did not have to do this prior to signing peace agreements with Israel, he explained, so why should Palestine?

To some, this argumentation appears reasonable — the Palestinians recognized the State of Israel, so why should they be forced to make declarations about Israel’s Jewish character, especially if that would ostensibly mean negating their own historical narrative. As senior PLO official and top peace negotiator Saeb Erekat pointed out two weeks ago, today’s Palestinians consider themselves the descendent of the Canaanites who lived in the area 5,500 years before the Jews arrived.

Furthermore, why should Israelis care about the Palestinians making declarative statements about the Jewish state? “I don’t feel we need a declaration from the Palestinians that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” Finance Minister Yair Lapid said in October. “My father didn’t come to Haifa from the Budapest ghetto in order to get recognition from Abu Mazen [Abbas].”

Former Middle East ambassador and Obama adviser Dennis Ross at an event at the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem earlier this year (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Dennis Ross (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

But Jordanians and Egyptians making peace with Israel without recognition is not the same as the Palestinians not doing so, according to Dennis Ross, a former top US diplomat with extensive experience in Israeli-Arab peace negotiations. “The difference is that these are two national movements competing for the same space,” he told me last week. Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would not necessarily destroy the Palestinians’ national narrative, he said. “They know who they are; [recognition] doesn’t deny that.”

“At the end of the day, Israel as Jewish state is another way of having everyone in the region accept the legitimacy of Israel’s presence,” Ross continued. “And that’s a sine qua non for peace and reconciliation. So I think it is essential. But I also think it’s one of the things that gets resolved during the course of the negotiations.”

Others argue that peace is not the same as reconciliation, and that a treaty to establish two states for two peoples is not necessarily dependent on a full convergence of historical narratives that have been competing for decades.

One thing is certain:Failure to achieve a final-status agreement will decrease the chances for a two-state solution and set Israelis and Palestinians on the path to a binational state, to the delight of extremists on both sides.