Netanyahu the Fundamentalist

History will damn the Israeli prime minister's obsessive demand for the Palestinians to commit heart and soul to the idea of Israel as the 'Jewish State' as a precondition for peace.

Benjamin Netanyahu's critics (there are still a few of us around, despite his much matured and improved performance of late) point to his demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel "as the Jewish state" as proof of his disingenuousness regarding peace in Palestine.

What is this demand? The United Nations spoke of a Jewish state and an Arab state back in the 1940s. That was the accepted vocabulary ever since the principle of partition made its appearance in the 1930s. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, uses the same vocabulary today.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, however, distinguishes between formal diplomatic usage and genuine political commitment. He asserts, with dire conviction, that there will never be genuine, long-term peace between the two nations unless the Palestinians genuinely recognize Israel's sovereign existence, here in the Holy Land, as rightful and permanent – as the legitimate, unchallengeable "Jewish State".

This position appeals to many Israeli Jews. His critics, on the other hand, say he's dredged it up cynically because he knows it is the one concession the Palestinian side can never make. Abbas can never extend recognition to Israel as "the Jewish state," because there are close to 20 percent of Palestinians among Israel's citizens and the recognition that Netanyahu demands of Israel as "the Jewish state" would be considered, in Palestinian opinion, a betrayal of them.

His critics also accuse Netanyahu of refusing to take yes for an answer. Abbas has said he'll have no more claims after an agreed re-partition of Palestine. He's said he'd visit Safed, his birthplace, as a tourist. But for Netanyahu, implicit diplomatic assurances are not good enough. He wants a historic and unequivocal pledge from the mouths (and pens) of the Palestinian leadership, a pledge that ordinary Palestinians will understand and that will bind them henceforward. A profound reversal, in other words, of the Palestinian national geist.

But, even sweeping aside (for the sake of the argument) the above-mentioned criticisms, and even accepting (ditto) the cogency of Netanyahu's position, it rests on a gaping lacuna: Is he prepared to extend the same far-reaching recognition to the proposed Palestinian state in the two-state solution? Is he ready to recognize it as "the Palestinian state," implying the same rightfulness, legitimacy and permanence that he demands from the Palestinians in their recognition of "the Jewish state"?

Much depends, of course, on the definition of 'recognize.' By Netanyahu's lights, this is not ultimately a philological question but rather an historical, religious, indeed almost metaphysical issue in which millions of people are required to define not only their neighbors but themselves.

His demand of the Palestinians obviously implies a parallel requirement of recognition by Israelis of the definition and destiny of the Palestinian state. Here's the catch. A great many Israelis, including many who desperately desire a two-state peace deal with the Palestinians to emerge from the present negotiations, do not, cannot, extend their sincere recognition to "the Palestinian state" as a rightful and permanent, sovereign presence in the Holy Land (Eretz Yisrael.)They carry too much baggage with them: the Bible, which is categorical, repeatedly, in its rejection of such an option, and the writings of the early Zionist leaders, almost all of whom rejected it, too.

In other words, as Netanyahu suspects of the Palestinians, the Israeli side, too is affected by the fundamentalism inherent in the Zionist narrative. For the Palestinians, their claim to the right of return fills a similarly fundamentalist role, despite Abbas's statements apparently abandoning it.

But that is surely the whole point of negotiations: To defang – or, perhaps better, sublimate – the parties' fundamentalisms and bring them to the plane of rational politics, national strategies and prosaic interests. That, hopefully, is what Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat are trying to do. They can only succeed if their bosses, too, accept this logic.

Does Netanyahu? His demand of the Palestinians – effectively a precondition, though he denies that – is from the realm of fundamentalism.

Netanyahu justifiedly prides himself for already having notched up one of the longest cumulative terms in office of any Israeli prime minister. But the real source of pride should be not just his number of days or months, but rather the fact that, since his first election to the prime ministership, in 1996, the country and the world are preoccupied with exactly the same, unchanging, still-unanswered riddle: ideologue or pragmatist?

Sustaining that guessing-game is a remarkable achievement – again, by his lights. But history's judgment will doubtless be damning. And it will cite, inter alia, his obsessive demand for Palestinian recognition as proof that he always intended to avoid a pragmatic, two-state solution, despite his Bar-Ilan declarations. The riddle is resolved: He chose to remain an ideologue, the obdurate leader of a 'national camp,' who preferred cynically exploiting age-old fundamentalisms to giving here-and-now peace a genuine chance.

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Amos ben Gershon / GPO