Kerry Tries to Defuse 'Recognition as Jewish State' Time Bomb That Threatens Talks

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Contrary to some reports in the Israeli press, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hasn’t distanced himself completely from the demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state: He has only tried to put it in its proper place. In advance of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ visit to Washington this week, Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday that the demand should not be the end-all and be-all of the peace process, or, as he put it, the “critical decider” of attitudes towards “the possibility of state and peace.”

But Kerry knows, or should know, that he may be trying to bolt the barn doors after the horses have fled. It was the Americans, from President Obama on down, who almost nonchalantly adopted the demand for recognition and allowed it to become a peace process mantra and a new rallying cry for Israeli supporters in Congress, in the American Jewish establishment and in both Israeli and American public opinions. But after committee members repeatedly badgered him about it, Kerry exposed his belated awareness that this supposedly marginal issue was a ticking time bomb threatening to derail his entire diplomatic initiative.

The United States initially thought that the recognition issue could be resolved without too much difficulty, based on some of the past “acknowledgements” mentioned by Kerry in his testimony on Thursday: the 1947 UN Partition Resolution and various interviews given by Yasser Arafat in which he “agreed with” Israel’s Jewish character. The Geneva Accords, not mentioned by Kerry but concluded with the knowledge of the Palestinian leadership, includes in its preamble “the recognition of the right of the Jewish people to statehood and the recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to statehood, without prejudice to the equal rights of the Parties' respective citizens.”

But the molehill slowly turned into a mountain, and Kerry pointed his finger at the party he deems responsible. “I think it's a mistake for some people to be, you know, raising it again and again as the critical decider of their attitude,” he said, and the address for his complaint was clear. The more that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amps up the volume on his demand for recognition, the Americans believe, the more he makes it harder for Abbas to accept it. The more that Israel describes recognition as the lynchpin of the entire process, the more it becomes a symbol of capitulation and humiliation for the other side, one that even braver leaders than Abbas would hesitate to accept.

“Yes, the demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state means that they accept the falsity of Palestinian narrative of Israel’s establishment,” one Jewish leader said in a closed forum in New York this week, and the Palestinians tend to agree. They are also finding it difficult to accept assurances that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state won’t be interpreted as an abandonment of their Palestinian brethren in pre-1967 Israel – especially when Netanyahu greets visiting British Prime Minister Cameron’s visit to the “Jewish Knesset”, when Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman cavalierly proposes the transfer of hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs to a future Palestinian state and when the Knesset passes a governing law, as it did this week, that forces the Arabs into one, ethnically-defined political party.

The Americans haven’t given up on their hope of securing a framework for continued negotiations, and President Obama will most likely press Abbas to soften his stands, but their motivation is rapidly dwindling. The Palestinian leader comes to Washington when it is immersed in an acute crisis and dangerous confrontation with Russia in Ukraine and when there are increasing signs that Obama’s original, second-term reluctance to get re-involved in the process is about to be vindicated.

Even the indefatigable Kerry is showing signs of fatigue. Mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians has never been higher, he said last week. One main reason for that is that the recognition demand has returned both sides to the very foundations of their bitter conflict, to the intractable core in which they have refused to accept each other’s validity since “time immemorial.”

Kerry probably had no idea where he was going and what he was getting into when he originally adopted Israel's demand. Whether Netanyahu himself knew or even planned the impasse is unknown: and the answer to the puzzle, at this point, is mainly in the eye of the beholder.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, shakes hands with Palestinian lead negotiator Saeb Erekat, left, and State Department Mideast advisor Martin Indyk, March 3, 2014.Credit: AP

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