This seemingly trivial concern is actually at the heart of the dispute.
As we learned last weekend via Bloomberg, President Obama is obsessed with the idea that Israeli intransigence is the reason there is no peace in the Middle East. Obama’s whitewashing of the rejectionism of the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas is shocking in its single-minded determination to ignore both recent history and the current state of the negotiations. Israel has already shown its willingness to accept a U.S. framework for continued talks despite their justified misgivings about the direction of the negotiations. Meanwhile the Palestinians have given every indication that they won’t buy into the framework because they fear it will commit them to the one thing they have repeatedly shown no interest in accepting: peace.
Further proof of that comes today from the New York Times in the form of an op-ed from a leading Palestinian academic explaining why his people could never agree to one of the key points in the framework: recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Ali Jarbawi of Bir Zeit University gives a number of reasons why the Jewish state demand is a non-starter. But the Palestinians would probably be better off if they gave up trying to explain why that is so. The more we understand about the Palestinians’ objections to this condition, the less likely peace will ever be agreed to, no matter what the terms.
Not entirely by coincidence, the Times editorial page endorsed the Palestinian position on the Jewish state today. But the paper was far more concerned with seconding President Obama’s stance and ignoring Israel’s past offers of statehood turned down by the Palestinians (in 2000, 2001 and 2008) and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s repeated statements about his willingness to accept a two-state solution if it meant real peace. Their dismissal of the Jewish state demand, which has been accepted by both Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, is however, a key point that should alert readers to the fact that the paper’s supposed concern for Israel’s future is less than sincere. But those wishing to understand the Palestinian’s reluctance to accept the necessity to merely say a few words in exchange for tangible concessions in terms of land from Israel need to read Jaberi’s article to understand why this seemingly trivial concern is actually at the heart of the dispute.
Let’s first dismiss the claim made by both the Times and Jarbawi that this demand by Israel is an innovation on Netanyahu’s part whose purpose is to derail the peace process. But there’s nothing new about it. The original 1947 United Nations partition resolution stated that the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River was to be divided between an Arab state and one it designated as a “Jewish state.” If the Palestinians are now reversing their adamant rejection of partition by saying they will be satisfied by an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza, there should be no problem accepting this term.
But they can’t and Jarbawi doesn’t shy away from explaining why. The Palestinians can’t say the words “Jewish state” because to do so would force them to give up their historical narrative in which they see themselves as victims of history who can only be made whole by annulling the results of Israel’s War of Independence. This is not merely a matter of Israelis stating their sympathy for the losers in that war and. The key principle of Palestinian nationalism is rejection of Zionism and the existence of Israel no matter where its borders are drawn. If Palestinians agree that a Jewish state has a right to exist that means they are forever giving up their dreams of extinguishing it. That seems unfair to Jaberi because it means the 1948 refugees and their descendants will be deprived of their dream of “return” which means the end of Israel as a Jewish state. But without accepting this will never happen the Palestinians are, at best, merely agreeing to a pause in their war against Israel and not in concluding it.
Jarbawi then makes the specious point that agreeing to Israel being a Jewish state would compromise the rights of Israel’s Arab minority. Jaberi knows very well this is a red herring since Israel’s basic laws hold that it is both a Jewish state and one in which ethnic and religious minorities have full rights. Israeli Arabs are equal before the law in Israel, serve in its Knesset, government and its judiciary. There is no conceivable scenario under which those rights will be annulled even in the event of war, let alone the outbreak of peace. But his real objection to this point comes in the following paragraph when he says his real worry is that even if those conditions are confirmed, Palestinians fear that a peace treaty might mean that Jews living in the West Bank who wish to remain in their homes in the event of peace would be given the same rights that Arabs have in Israel.
A savvy Palestinian propagandist might have been willing to concede the right of Jews to live in the West Bank as a protected minority in a Palestinian state, but not Jarbawi. Speaking for what is mainstream, indeed, the virtually unanimous opinion of Palestinians, the academic says Jews have no right to be there and therefore cannot be accorded the equal rights that Arabs have inside Israel. Their vision of peace is apparently one in which a Jew-free Palestinian state exists alongside an Israel flooded by Palestinian refugees who would vote the Jewish state out of existence.
While Obama, Kerry and the Times are mindlessly blaming Netanyahu for fighting a two-state solution he has already accepted, the Palestinians persist in laying down terms for peace that are not only unrealistic but demonstrate that the end of their century-old conflict with Zionism is still at the top of their agenda. Two little words would be enough to convince the world that the Palestinians are sincere about peace even though Israel has good reason to doubt Abbas’ sincerity or his ability to make a deal stick even if he signed one. But the more the Palestinians explain why they cannot say them the more obvious it becomes that peace is not their objective.