The insistence that Mahmoud Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state is a Benjamin Netanyahu demand. Ariel Sharon hinted at it in the early 2000s, Ehud Olmert raised it as an issue in 2007, and others on the right and center-right have picked it up. But it is foremost a Bibi thing. To the extent that Netanyahu truly believes it is necessary for psychological comfort and to protect Israel’s Jewish identity, it is a valid issue to raise in peace talks.
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The argument is that without formal recognition of Israel’s Jewish nature, Palestinians would continue to dismiss the Jews’ right to self-determination and would, therefore, continue to claim all of Israel for Palestine. But asserting that Israelis’ concerns might be eased because Mahmoud Abbas says so is questionable. Even more importantly, there are no legal or political mechanisms that can translate such recognition into protection against future claims. But there are legal and political mechanisms, as well as historical precedents, that can protect the State of Israel against claims on its territory—which is the real issue.
First, international law provides no basis for states demanding recognition of their identity. It’s true that some countries do insert their peoplehood into their founding documents (the Turkish constitution) or official names (Syrian Arab Republic), but that doesn’t mean states that formally recognize them also accept their dominant ethno-national identity.
External recognition is a necessary component of statehood and acceptance into the community of states. But it is of the state itself—its borders and its existence—not of its identity. It’s been pointed out that the Palestinian leadership has recognized the State of Israel several times already. International law exists to protect states, not the character of states.
Second, there’s nothing wrong with Palestinians believing that ancient Palestine-modern Israel is part of their historical identity. After all, Jews around the world are always going to believe that large parts of an eventual Palestinian state are part of their biblical-historical identity; for some it will always be part even of their birthright.
But in protracted conflicts, in which two peoples believe the same piece of land is an integral part of their identity, such demands must be subject to practical need rather than emotional desire in order to reach a resolution. And for the most part, governments recognize that needs are predominant. Plenty of groups living around the world feel attached to territories that were once part of their empire, homeland, or identity (think of Germany and Austria, France and Canada, or Serbia and Croatia). Most aren’t rising up to reclaim them.
Finally, it’s certainly true that political agreements are sometimes broken and irredentist and secessionist conflicts do break out. Armenia and Azerbaijan, Eritrea and Ethiopia, or Syria and Lebanon are good examples.
But the assumption that recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is the way to block Palestinians from either thinking about further claims on Israel or actually pursuing them is wishful thinking. If the fear is that without it, Palestinians will eventually abrogate the treaty or simply try to get around the end-of-claims element of it, why should inserting a clause about Israel’s nature not also be subject to the same possibility? In the cases noted above, the common denominators allowing for ethno-national claims to be translated into action were unprotected borders, weak state institutions, and governments perceived by their publics as illegitimate.
Ending Palestinian claims requires three further elements to a formal political treaty: A strengthening of Palestinian governance and state institutions; a powerful Israeli security force; and the backing of the Arab League, the strongest countries in the world, and the United Nations. Inserting into an agreement the nature of Israel cannot compensate for these components.
Having said all that, if it’s true that John Kerry really is pushing recognition as a necessary part of the framework agreement, then it’s likely Washington won’t back away from it in the future.
The only way forward, then, is for the two sides to agree to a trade-off: Some implicit acknowledgment of Israel’s Jewish character in return for Israel’s acceptance of partial responsibility for the nakba. Neither recognition will prevent violence from breaking out, but if addressing both sides’ abstract, psychological needs is what it takes to finalize a deal, let it be done so the conflict can end.