Art by Hasan Idelbi
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has insisted from the launch of the current peace talks that the Palestinians set no preconditions, while making his own precondition the centerpiece of negotiations.
Netanyahu has said talks are futile unless the Palestinians and their leader, Mahmoud Abbas, first recognize Israel as a Jewish state. “I recognized the Palestinians’ right to self-definition, so they must do the same for the Jewish people,” he told American Jewish leaders recently.
Netanyahu, of the right-wing Likud Party, is not the first Israeli leader to make such a requirement of the Palestinians. His predecessor, Tzipi Livni, the leader of the centrist opposition, wanted the same recognition. Barak, the defense minister and head of the supposedly left-wing Labor Party, also supports this position. The consensus on this matter, however, masks a reluctance by Israeli politicians to clarify what exactly is being expected of the Palestinians and why recognition is so important.
Netanyahu clearly does not simply want the fact of Israel’s existence acknowledged. That is in no doubt, and, anyway, the Israeli state has been recognized by the Palestinian leadership since the late 1980s. It is recognition of the state’s Jewishness, not its existence, that matters. Debate on this subject focuses on Israel’s desire to stifle the threat of a right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees. Though doubtless a consideration, that explanation hardly suffices. It is clear to everyone that the refugees are one of the main issues to be settled in the negotiations. Should all other obstacles to Palestinian statehood be removed, it is almost certain the United States and international community would work to make that particular mountain a molehill.
More likely, the demand for recognition is directed chiefly at another party: the fifth of Israel’s population who are Palestinian – the remnants of the Palestinian people who stayed on their land during the great dispossession of 1948, the nakba, and eventually gained Israeli citizenship. They are only nominally represented at the talks by their state, Israel. Instead, Netanyahu hopes to use the promise of statehood to induce Abbas to sacrifice the interests of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. The Palestinian minority’s leaders, who have been lobbying Abbas hard in the run-up to the talks, understand what Netanyahu’s demand for recognition entails.
Jewish extremists burning Muslim mosques in Israel