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Benjamin Netanyahu is to be praised for declaring that Palestinian recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people must serve as a foundation for peace. This declaration exposes the prime minister's ideological viewpoint and stimulates discussion of important issues. Like most Israelis, the prime minister believes that a widespread Arab unwillingness to assent this demand undermines the very existence of the state of Israel and reflects principled opposition to recognizing the state's sovereignty. This widely held perception stems from the lack of a distinction drawn between recognition of the state of Israel and recognition of it as a Jewish state.

Arab societies contain elements that indeed oppose recognition of the state of Israel. Yet not all Arabs refuse to recognize the state. The peace agreements signed with Egypt and Jordan included an explicit clause enjoining recognition of the state of Israel; and on the eve of the signing of the Oslo Accords, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat exchanged letters referring to this point. However, these agreements do not include recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state."

Legal and diplomatic recognition of the state of Israel is a necessary condition upon which a peace agreement with an Arab side is predicated. The national and cultural identity of Israeli society is an internal matter. Of course, that the Israeli consensus identifies the state's identity as Jewish is legitimate; yet a demand that the Palestinian side recognize Israel as a Jewish state is immaterial to the forging of a peace agreement.

The demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict generally, and, in particular, the demand's issuance in talks about a final-status agreement, is significant on three levels. The first is the negation of the legitimacy of Palestinian claims about their historic rights to their homeland, or at least to the main part of it. For Mahmoud Abbas, accepting Netanyahu's demand would be tantamount to the erasure of memories of the 1948 Palestinian Nakba catastrophe and of the Palestinian narrative concerning the 1948 War of Independence.

The second level pertains to the raising of Israel's demand in the context of diplomatic negotiations. The demand repeals the Palestinians' stance regarding their sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem, particularly Haram al-Sharif, the Temple Mount. Is it conceivable that after demanding recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, Netanyahu would compromise about control over the compound within which Israel's most sacred professions of faith are enclosed? Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state eliminates the possibility of attaining an agreement on the vexing question of refugees.

The third level involves the hard message Netanyahu's demand delivers to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, an alienating message that overlooks their bonds to their historic homeland. Over the past decade, the Jewish majority's insensitivity toward this minority's historic and national identity, as part of the Palestinian people, has grown considerably. The events of October 2000 constitute a turning point in the way Palestinian citizens of Israel perceive the state, and the way the majority views these citizens. Surely, direct and indirect support for the demand making citizenship contingent upon loyalty oaths is not displayed exclusively by the Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Diplomatic negotiations are fragile from the start. Persistence about the demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state is liable to forestall any progress in the talks and could reinforce the perception that the Palestinians' refusal to accept Netanyahu's demand removes, as it were, their masks and exposes their true intentions. That sounds like a troubling echo of the unfounded narrative that circulated in Israel in the aftermath of the Camp David summit failure 10 years ago.


Prof. Yoram Meital is affiliated with the Middle East Studies Department at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.