Could the ‘Jewish State of Israel’ crack one of the conflict’s hardest nuts?

Could the ‘Jewish State of Israel’ crack one of the conflict’s hardest nuts?

Op-Ed: The Arab world’s positive response to John Kerry’s demand the Palestinians adopt the ‘two states for two peoples’ formula is promising. With a little creativity, this most complex core issue could be solved

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, Jordan, on June 28, 2013 (AP/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, Jordan, on June 28, 2013 (AP/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Much ink has been spilled over US Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech last week, with supporters and critics arguing about its polemical content and inopportune timing. But beyond the headlines decrying the latest nadir in US-Israel relations, something happened in the aftermath of the speech that, though underreported, could be a game-changer for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As Kerry laid out six principles as “a possible basis for serious negotiations,” he in effect for the first time endorsed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. “This has been the foundational principle of the two-state solution from the beginning: creating a state for the Jewish people and a state for the Palestinian people, where each can achieve their national aspirations,” Kerry said.

No other outline of parameters for Israeli-Palestinian peace endorsed by any government has ever included the demand that Israel be recognized as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

Washington itself has long recognized Israel as a Jewish state, as have Germany and Canada, but the rest of the international community has so far dismissed Netanyahu’s demand that Israel be defined along what it considers religious lines.

However, Kerry said that he was “absolutely convinced that many others are now prepared to accept it as well — provided the need for a Palestinian state is also addressed.”

The reactions of many Arab states appears to prove him right. In the days after Kerry’s 73-minute speech Wednesday, many Arab and Muslim states signaled their approval of the six “principles” he proposed as a blueprint for a future peace agreement, including the Jewish state recognition.

Egypt said Kerry’s guidelines “are mostly consistent with the international consensus and the Egyptian vision.” Jordan said they are “in line with” the government’s longstanding position. The United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, in separate statements, “welcomed” them. Turkey called them “important within the context of the revitalization of the peace process on the basis of the two state solution.”

Even the theocratic regime in Riyadh said Kerry’s “recommendations are in agreement with the majority of legitimate international decisions… and form a suitable ground to reach a final solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

This incredible development has the potential to revitalize the moribund peace process, since the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is one of Netanyahu’s two core conditions for a final-status agreement. The other one — a future Palestinian state’s demilitarization — is much less challenging, since Ramallah has all but agreed to it in previous rounds of negotiations.

In countless speeches and interviews, Netanyahu has argued that the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the settlements but the Palestinians’ refusal to recognize the Jewish state in any boundaries.

“My vision is that Israelis and Palestinians both have a future of mutual recognition, of dignity, mutual respect, coexistence,” Netanyahu said Wednesday in his scathing response to Kerry’s speech. “But the Palestinian Authority tells them that they will never accept, should never accept the existence of a Jewish state. So, I ask you, how can you make peace with someone who rejects your very existence?” A removal of the Palestinians’ refusal to recognize a Jewish state “is the key to peace,” he added.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lights the Hanukkah candles on the First night of the Jewish holiday at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City on December 25, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lights the Hanukkah candles on the first night of the Jewish holiday at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City on December 25, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

If, as Netanyahu argues, the core of the conflict is the Palestinians’ deep-seated refusal to recognize a Jewish state, one might wonder how a mere declaratory recognition would provide any remedy. But regardless of its merit, recognition of its Jewish nature is Israel’s “first and most unshakable demand,” Netanyahu declared two years ago at a conference in Tel Aviv.

As long as the Palestinians do not publicly embrace the concept of “two states for two peoples,” Israelis continue to fear that the Palestinians’ ultimate goal is to water down and eventually eliminate the state’s Jewish character, Netanyahu argues.

“Of course, there are those who do not want the State of Israel to be defined as the nation-state of the Jewish People. They want a Palestinian nation-state to be established alongside us and that Israel should gradually become a binational, Arab-Jewish state inside shrunken borders,” he said in 2014 at meeting of his cabinet in Jerusalem.

“But I simply say that one cannot hold the national stick at both of its national ends. They cannot say that they want to separate from the Palestinians in order to prevent a binational state, which has a certain logic, and also sanctify a binational, Jewish-Arab state within the permanent borders of the State of Israel.”

On the face of it, the prime minister’s stipulation makes sense: how can Israelis have confidence in a lasting peace and an end to all claims if the Palestinians decline to recognize the Jewish people’s right to sovereignty? In this context it is less Israel’s need for recognition than the conspicuous Palestinian refusal to extend it that sets off Israeli alarm bells.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recites a prayer in memory of those killed during the Gaza campaign ahead of a press conference on August 26, 2014 in the West Bank city of Ramallah, to formally announce a ceasefire with Israel. (photo credit: AFP/Abbas Momani)
PA President Abbas recites a prayer in memory of those killed during the 2014 Gaza campaign, August 26, 2014 in Ramallah, to formally announce a ceasefire with Israel. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

What is behind the Palestinians’ unwavering non-acceptance of the “two states for two peoples” formula?

Palestinians say they worry about non-Jewish residents of Israel being downgraded to second-class citizens (a weak argument, since the Israeli government has repeatedly offered assurances that it would safeguard full civil rights for all its citizens.)

The real reason is more likely to be their refusal to recognize the Jewish people as a people, as a nation with the right to sovereignty in its is ancestral land. Rather, they prefer viewing Jews as adherents of a religion who should assume the citizenship of any country they may dwell in.

Be that is it may, the fact remains that the Palestinians steadfastly vow never to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. PA Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki rushed to stress that the notion was “unacceptable” within hours of Kerry’s address last week.

And yet, there are possible ways out of this conundrum. One was raised, albeit sarcastically, by PA President Mahmoud Abbas himself.

“Go to the [UN] General Assembly and change your name. If you wanted to change it, change your name,” he said in a television interview earlier this year.

In 1993, the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized the State of Israel and that must suffice, the Palestinians argue routinely when confronted with the Israeli demand for recognition of a Jewish state. Now Israel can choose to call itself whatever it wants, they add. As far as he was concerned, Abbas said in 2010, “Israel can call itself… the Jewish-Zionist Empire.”

What may sound like flippancy just might provide a solution to one of the conflict’s toughest nuts to crack: why not rename the State of Israel to reflect its Jewish character?

Defining a state through its predominant population group is nothing new in the Middle East. Egypt and Syria both carry the term “Arab” in their respective names. Iran is an “Islamic Republic” and Jordan a “Hashemite Kingdom.”

There is recent precedent for adding an adjective to a state’s name even outside the region: In 1999, Venezuela called itself a “Bolivarian Republic” and 10 years later Bolivia officially changed its name to reflect its status as a “Plurinational State.”

Just 12 months ago, Gambia, a tiny country in West Africa, declared itself an “Islamic Republic.” The name change reflects the fact that a majority of Gambians are Muslims “and the need to uphold the country’s Islamic identity and faith,” the country’s president explained at the time, stressing, however, that “the rights of all citizens would be safeguarded and respected.”

If the State of Israel were to add the word “Jewish” to its official name, Abbas could simply reaffirm the PLO’s 1993 recognition and both sides could claim victory.

Would Israelis support such a name change?

A large majority of Israelis, including sworn leftists such as Yossi Beilin, support the prime minister’s demand that the Palestinians recognize the Jewish state. According to a recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, 52.5 percent of Israeli Jews even want citizens unwilling to affirm Israel’s status as the nation-state of the Jewish people to lose their right to vote.

On the other hand, many Israelis argue that they don’t need the Palestinians to define the nature of their state. “My father didn’t come to Haifa from the Budapest ghetto in order to get recognition from Abu Mazen,” Yesh Atid party leader MK Yair Lapid has said, using Abbas’s nom de guerre.

Nearly 80 percent of Israel’s Muslims oppose the state’s right to define itself as Jewish, according to the IDI survey. And a whopping 39 percent of Jewish respondents said that the Jewish component is “too dominant” in Israel’s balance between Jewish and democratic values. (A quarter said the democratic part was too dominant, while 29 percent said it was a “good balance.”)

One possible way to determine whether Israelis want to change their country’s name could be a national referendum. If the country’s eligible voters democratically decide that henceforth they want to live in the “Jewish State of Israel,” the problem of the Palestinian non-recognition will have been solved.

If the people of Israel don’t care enough about their country’s Jewishness to include it in its name and reject the proposal at the ballot box, then the prime minister should drop the matter as well. Rather than insisting on a recognition the Palestinians say they will never extend and that some argue is not crucial for a lasting peace agreement, he ought to focus on solving the other outstanding final-status issues — security, refugees, borders, and the status of Jerusalem.

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