Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently been reiterating the demand he has focused on since regaining power that Palestinians and other Arabs recognize Israel as not only a “Jewish state” but specifically as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” This demand has been flatly rejected not only by the Palestinian leadership, but more recently by the Arab League.
The demand for explicit Arab recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” is a relatively new phenomenon, and was not part of either the Oslo process or the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. It was formally introduced into the conversation for the first time during the Annapolis meeting of November 2007, in which then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert demanded the Palestinians make some kind of statement recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. They refused, and the Israelis asked President George W. Bush to do so in his address. Yet Bush simply reiterated language from the Balfour Declaration about Israel as “a homeland for the Jewish people,” which has very different political and legal connotations.
The reason the Americans avoided such a formulation at the time was that they agreed with the Palestinians that the demand, at that stage of negotiations, was an attempt to foreclose the refugee issue, and that such a step would be bad for negotiations as a whole because reciprocal compromises on that issue and Jerusalem would probably be required to reach a successful agreement. The Palestinians are obviously also concerned that any recognition on their part of Israel as a “Jewish state” might imply an acceptance of discrimination against the large Palestinian minority in Israel.
The Palestinian point since Annapolis has been that the Palestine Liberation Organization has already recognized Israel through the letters of mutual recognition that are the core documents of the Oslo process and all subsequent Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, and that Israel is free to define itself, as Palestine will be. The Palestinians rightly point out that it is extremely unusual if not unprecedented in international relations for a state to ask its neighbors to define its character. Many others agree that adding the issue to the negotiations introduces a new complication in an already vexed set of problems.
Since regaining power, Netanyahu has raised the stakes in two ways: first, because of the importance he has given the demand; second, in the specific language he is insisting on, which is exceptionally problematic from a Palestinian and Arab point of view.
The Netanyahu formulation – “the nation-state of the Jewish people” – is so crammed with subtle significance that it demands careful unpacking. It is a significant move away from the idea of Israel merely as “a Jewish state,” with its indefinite article and very broad range of potential interpretations. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis undoubtedly see Israel as a Jewish state, but there is absolutely no consensus among them about what that means, apart from the fact that there is a majority community that both sees itself and is defined by the government as “Jewish.”
Netanyahu’s version moves away from the indefinite article and imposes two definite articles that are probably the most significant aspect of this language. It is categorically “the nation-state,” nobody else’s and none other, of “the Jewish people,” a constituency that is implicitly clearly defined, discrete and readily identifiable.
What Netanyahu’s language essentially does with its definite articles is foreclose alternatives or pluralisms. In that sense, it represents a return not only to classical Zionism but even to an anachronistic pre-state ideology that privileges a global Jewish “national” identity over an Israeli one. Such categorical language cannot be entirely a matter of comfort for many in Jewish communities around the world who feel intense loyalty to their own nation-states.
From a Palestinian point of view, the language is unacceptable because it implies that Israel is not only a “Jewish state” because it has a Jewish ethnic majority and consequent self-definition, but that it “belongs” not to its citizens or its ethnic majority but rather to “the Jewish people” around the world and for all time. Netanyahu is asking Palestinians to accept that Jews (by Israel’s official definition of the term) around the world, no matter where they are and what, if any, connection they have to Israel or Palestine, enjoy political rights that are privileged and superior over any other group in a metaphysical, permanent and non-contingent manner.
The obvious implication here is that Jews around the world, most of whom are not Israeli citizens, have superior political and national rights in Israel to the Palestinian citizens of that state. Netanyahu is asking the PLO and other Palestinians to not only embrace and endorse Zionism, but a very old-fashioned Zionism at that.
Netanyahu is also asking Palestinians to accept Israel as a fait accompli, a reality, and a legitimate member state of the United Nations, but also as an entity that transcends itself and has a trans-historical, supra-political and even quasi-religious status as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” no matter who happens to live there or what they collectively decide. He’s not asking for recognition of the Israeli state; he’s asking for a permanent deed to the global Jewish community of the land and political rights in it for all time. This is a unique demand as far as I can tell in the history of international relations, and a completely unreasonable one at that.
In the end, to make a Palestinian-Israeli agreement work it may be necessary, especially after the refugee issue is resolved, to find language through which Jewish Israelis and Palestinians recognize each other’s right of self-determination in their respective states, and I don’t think this is unrealistic or unreasonable. But Netanyahu’s language is subtle, insidious and completely unworkable.