Netanyahu’s ?Jewish state? demand is ultimately about Jerusalem

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposal earlier today that Israel might agree to a two-month extension of the partial, temporary settlement moratorium expired in late September on condition that Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" is insulting and frivolous. It was correctly rejected out of hand by the Palestinian leadership and ignored by the United States government. It's the strongest indication so far that Netanyahu is just not serious about any of this, a suspicion those of us committed to a two state peace agreement have been doing our best to resist since he returned to power.

That this may be, in the end a core Israeli demand for a final status agreement is entirely possible. It would then be a question of negotiating what kind of language might satisfy both Palestinians and Israelis. I have pointed out many times that Netanyahu's idée fixe formula that Israel must be acknowledged as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” is almost certainly unacceptable because of its numerous dubious implications. However, whatever language may or may not be part of any final status agreement, it almost certainly has to come at the end of the process in the context of the establishment of a Palestinian state and a resolution of the refugee final status issue. Indeed, Palestinian acknowledgment of Israel's character as a “Jewish state,” whatever that may mean (Jewish Israelis themselves are deeply divided on the question), is not even a final status issue at all. Palestinians have already recognized Israel in the letters of mutual recognition that kicked off the Oslo negotiation process formally, although Israel has never recognized the Palestinian right to statehood formally or informally. That, for now, is more than sufficient to be going forward with.

The real permanent status issues have been defined a long time ago, and were identified clearly by Pres. Obama during his 2009 UN General Assembly speech: security, borders, refugees and Jerusalem. Obviously there are other well-known lesser issues that have final status aspects such as water and other issues regarding the relationship of the new Palestinian state to Israel. But the ethnic or religious character of the two states has never been an issue in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and was not an issue between Israel and either Egypt or Jordan. If the Israelis most unreasonably nonetheless insist on introducing the concept, it will not be worth continuing the conflict and the occupation to refuse to try to find a reasonable formula. But this will have to be one of the very last things negotiated because of its implications, especially for refugees.

In his speech before the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on September 20, Netanyahu was very clear about this new demand, and very frank about its implications. He said, “just as the Jewish state has granted Jews around the world the right to immigrate to Israel, a Palestinian state could decide to grant Palestinians around the world the right to immigrate to their state. But Palestinian refugees do not have a right to come to the Jewish state.”

In other words, in Netanyahu's own interpretation of the legal and political implications of any such recognition, the right of return of refugees would be foreclosed and one of the key permanent status issues would be resolved before it had been negotiated. And that's what this is always been about: an end run around the right of return. And the point of that, crucially, is that negotiators, including most importantly the Americans, have always assumed that there would have to be reciprocal very painful and politically difficult compromises on refugees and Jerusalem. The Israeli effort to end-run and foreclose the refugee issue through Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” before the refugee question is resolved through negotiations is, ultimately, an effort to preserve an ability of Israel to refuse to compromise on Jerusalem and possibly even get away with it in the eyes of at least the United States.

This was recognized by Bush administration officials at the Annapolis meeting when Prime Minister Olmert and Foreign Minister Livni first tried to get the Palestinians to make such a declaration and then tried to get President Bush to say something similar in his address. Bush simply used innocuous language drawn directly from the Balfour Declaration about Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people, which had no legal or political implications about refugees or the refugee question as a final status issue to be negotiated. Olmert and Livni more or less let the matter go. But since returning to power, Netanyahu has increasingly focused on it. In the past it's been possible to have two equally compelling interpretations about this: 1) it's a sign of his frivolousness about negotiations because he is focusing on language that can never be acceptable to Palestinians and bringing the issue forward in a way that is also totally unworkable or 2) it's a sign of the seriousness because it is something he is going to assure the Israeli right that he, uniquely, can deliver even as he makes territorial and other compromises.

After today's shenanigans, it's much harder to believe in the second interpretation. Netanyahu is essentially asking the Palestinians to give up on not one, but in effect two of the four major permanent status issues: refugees and, you game it out logically, in effect Jerusalem as well. He's asking for this in return for an eight week extension of a partial, temporary moratorium that led to a minor slowdown but not a halt in settlement expansion and never covered Jerusalem. What he's really asking for is an explicit concession on a new, highly problematic and emotional non-permanent status issue, not to mention massive implicit concessions on permanent status issues, in return for a very partial and very temporary meeting of Israel's obligations under Phase One of the Roadmap of the Middle East Quartet. There is no basis in international law for Israel to claim a right to continue any form of settlement activity whatsoever. It has been asked not to do so repeatedly by its major ally the United States. And it is obliged by the Roadmap not to do so. The idea that it would fulfill this obligation partially and for eight weeks in exchange for one of the most far-reaching Palestinian gestures imaginable with extremely serious implications for two of the most important permanent status issues is, frankly, insulting and indeed frivolous.

It's become harder to maintain that the Israeli Prime Minister is taking these negotiations seriously after such a proclamation. The fact that it comes on the same day that his cabinet has adopted proposed legislation that would require only people classified as non-Jews by the Israeli government who are seeking Israeli citizenship to swear a loyalty oath to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state only adds insult to injury. The loyalty oath is aimed at Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens who marry Palestinian citizens of Israel, the only substantial group of non-Jews with a pathway to Israeli citizenship. And, since people who are classified as Jewish by the Israeli state, which distinguishes between ethnicity (which it calls “nationality”) as opposed to citizenship, are exempt from this requirement, it is overtly racist and discriminatory. In other words, if this is the context of how Israel's Jewish character is expressed with regard to Palestinians, asking Palestinians to embrace it in any context, let alone in exchange for a paltry eight-week extension of a partial, temporary moratorium that was always more of a gimmick than a reality, is really absurd and disheartening. If Netanyahu is at all serious about the possibility of a negotiated agreement, he's going to have to stop this shameless grandstanding and frivolous demagoguery.