Benjamin Netanyahu is an old friend. We have always understood each other, even when we did not see eye-to-eye on issues. But now we part company, it being inexplicable to me why, as a pragmatic matter, the prime minister would insist on having Israel’s adversary, the Palestinians, recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition to reaching a peace accord.
Some would contend that Netanyahu raised this issue only because he knew that the Palestinians would never accept it, giving him an excuse to suspend the peace process, while accusing the Palestinians of being irrevocably opposed to any Jewish presence in Palestine. But Netanyahu is not, I believe, that Machiavellian – or bereft of genuine, deeply felt reasons, reflecting a broad spectrum of Israeli opinion – in taking his position. Rather, it seems girded in the fear that the Palestinians of the West Bank remain ready to adopt the position of Hamas that recognition of Israel is but a meaningless phrase. Thus the need for the Palestinians also to explicitly abandon their claim to the whole of Palestine, and renounce the idea that the Jews have no legitimate national claim.
Let’s give Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt as to good intentions. That still brings us to the question of whether his approach is a practical one, and one without terrible costs.
First it is demeaning to the Jewish people, a self-inflicted blow. For years Israel had insisted on its inherent right to be treated like any other state. In the early 1980s, when Israel was subjected to a concerted effort at the United Nations to delegitimize its existence, I, as counsel to U.S. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, worked closely with Netanyahu, then Israel’s representative to the UN, to make the case that Israel, by virtue of its admission to the body in 1948, was entitled to the same privileges as any other member state. Chief among these was the right articulated in Article 2:4 of the UN Charter to freedom from the threat or use of force against its territorial integrity and political independence, with the parallel obligation of every other member state to act accordingly.
Now, Netanyahu would ask of the Palestinians something that the UN Charter does not require of them: recognition of the nature of another state’s religious or ethnic composition. That, however, should be an internal matter.
If a state wants to call itself the “Islamic Republic of such-and-such,” or anything else under the sun, that is its prerogative. Israel was admitted to the UN as the sovereign State of Israel, just as the United States was admitted as the United States of America, or France as the French Republic. But if Israel now wants to call itself the Jewish State of Israel, it has that right. While the endeavor would not be meaningless, it could diminish what Israel already has: an incontrovertible right to acknowledgment of its sovereign and indivisible statehood. As it stands today, the Palestinians are obligated to do nothing other than what they have already done in the 1993 Oslo Accords: recognize Israel as a sovereign state.
When the United States won its war of independence, the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a fellow citizen what kind of government he and his colleagues had given the new country. He famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” The same is true of Israel. In 1948, it became a state. It was and remains up to its Jewish majority to show whether it can keep Israel a Jewish state by maintaining that majority.
Would any democratically inclined Israeli really want, let alone expect, the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state for all time, as if the possibility that Israeli Arabs might one day replace Israel’s Jews as the majority population is of no consequence? How could one realistically expect that the Palestinians would commit themselves to such a proposition?
Of course there is grave concern in Israel, which Netanyahu well understands, that the Palestinians continue to question the legitimacy of a Jewish state in historic Palestine, and would want to use a right of return as a way of creating an Arab majority. But insistence on formal Palestinian acknowledgment of Israel as a Jewish state is not a practical solution to this dilemma. Even assuming that the Palestinians would be prepared to commit to the perpetual recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, Israel would have to pay a substantial price for the concession. No price would be justified.
Why ask the Palestinians to do something they are not required to do under international law or international practice, and which goes against their grain? No less important, why risk insulting the Jewish people by making them look to their adversary, rather than themselves, to guarantee Israel’s continuation as a Jewish state? Aside from the indignity of such a stance, Israel’s insistence on this condition makes it appear that it is Israel that is throwing a monkey-wrench into peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
The debate over the pernicious 1975 UN “Zionism is racism” resolution is a case in point. At the time, I argued in Midstream, a Zionist publication, that Israel should ridicule the entire endeavor rather than angrily rebut the charges, insofar as Israel, like any other sovereign state, is required to respond only to accusations about its actions as a state, and not ones leveled at the national liberation movement that spawned it and died (aside from cultural matters) a natural death upon achieving independence.
Today, it continues to remain in Israel’s best interest to be judged like any other member state of the UN. Indeed, any member that refuses to recognize it as such (e.g., Iran) should be subject to expulsion from the UN for violating the Charter’s cardinal precept of sovereign equality.
Israel’s Jewish character – now and in the future – is an internal matter. The peace process is complicated enough as it is. Common sense dictates that the task is to simplify it, not make it more cumbersome. And peace is an incremental process.
In time, whatever reservations the Palestinians may harbor about Israel’s legitimacy may well pale in the light of their formal acceptance of Israel by means of a peace accord. Making an issue of formal Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, however well intentioned, is unnecessary, demeaning to the Jewish people and a further obstacle to realizing the dream of peace.
Allan Gerson is chairman of AG International Law, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm. Mr. Gerson was counsel to the U.S. Delegation to the United Nations, 1981-1985, and is the author of “Israel, the West Bank and International Law.”
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