Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inventive insistence that Palestine recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jews has bogged down the negotiations with the Palestinians, as the prime minister’s critics in the peace camp believe he intended. Under Netanyahu’s plan, Israel would similarly recognize the new state of Palestine — to be established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and on swaths of swapped land — as the nation-state of the Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s position has also bogged down the two nations in thinking about their own and the other’s identity. With all the history and religion involved in these questions, that was a likely outcome of Netanyahu’s new metaphysics, though it's hard to see what benefits accrue to Israel, or indeed to the Palestinians, from such a debate.
At any rate, the debate has brought to the surface an interesting religious-historical discussion that Yasser Arafat had at his battered Muqata headquarters in Ramallah in 2004. It took place during an interview that Haaretz’s Akiva Eldar and I were holding with the PLO chairman and in which he rehearsed his acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state.
The religious-historical discussion was not part of the political interview. But nor was it idle chat. Rather, it was Arafat’s way of demonstrating to a religious Israeli — he had been briefed that one of the journalists was kippa-wearing — how a religious person (in this case, Arafat himself) can “recognize” the other side’s present existence and current political rights yet at the same time not abandon or deny his own religious beliefs.
“Why did Jacob go to Egypt?” Arafat innocently asked the kippa-wearer — and I walked straight into his trap. “Because there was a famine in Palestine. It’s in the Bible,” I offered.
“Ah! Yes! But the Palestinians didn’t leave the land, did they?” The point was clear. “The Palestinians” — all the biblical tribes had been adopted by the PLO chairman as forbears — loved the land more than the Israelis’ forbears. They had more sumud — the Arabic word for steadfastness.
Arafat’s recognition of the biblical Israelites as the forefathers of the present ones was, of course, an important concession that contributed to the headline of the interview — “Arafat: Israel is Jewish.” But Arafat’s lasting (posthumous) contribution, yet to be applied, to Israel-Palestine negotiations came in the religious-historical discussion with me.
Despite its awkward provenance, religious hard-liners on the two sides could usefully take up Arafat’s sophisticated wriggle between ancient religious history and modern-day politics. How otherwise can a Bible-believing Jew — Sara Netanyahu, for instance, or the couple’s Bible-quiz-champion son Avner — “recognize” Hebron, Nablus and East Jerusalem as the nation-state of the Palestinians? That is not the long-term future that the Bible envisages for these places, which Netanyahu justly calls the cradle of Israel’s culture and civilization.
By the same token, measuring sumud from 3,000-plus years ago signals a continuing commitment to the land. It is a religious and historical commitment and does not preclude a negotiated End of Conflict or No More Claims declaration in an agreement repartitioning modern-day Palestine.
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