Netanyahu and the fundamentals of peace

Under the title “Netanyahu the fundamentalist,” David Landau grimly predicted in a recent Ha’aretz column that “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.” Needless to say, this was not the first Ha’aretz article opposing Netanyahu’s stance – and needless to say, blaming Israel in general and Binyamin Netanyahu in particular for the lack of peace is always a crowd pleaser for the audiences Ha’aretz caters to.

But Landau’s piece was so weak and contradictory that it only helps to make the case for Netanyahu’s demand.

At the beginning of his column, Landau notes that 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.”

If it was true that Abbas “uses the same vocabulary today,” it should hardly be a problem for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the Jewish state.

However, Landau then goes on to explain that

“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.”

Landau probably knows all too well that the problem is not just “Palestinian opinion,” but rather the fact that the PLO claims to be “the sole legitimate representative of the entire Palestinian people” – which, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, includes Israel’s Arab citizens (irrespective of the question whether they regard themselves as Palestinians and want to be represented by the PLO). It is important to realize that Palestinian advocates have even used this claim to argue that a Palestinian state is not all that desirable since it could only represent its own citizens and not Palestinians who are citizens of other countries, including Israel. Similar notions about statehood requiring the Palestinians to give up on various claims and all sorts of imaginary “rights” are reflected in the views of many “one-state” proponents and in the vicious anti-Israel propaganda of sites like the Electronic Intifada.

Unfortunately for Landau, the fact that the Palestinians oppose the recognition of Israel as the Jewish state because they insist on representing Israel’s Arab citizens doesn’t really show that it is Netanyahu who is the “fundamentalist” here…

After all, there are plenty of states that define themselves in no uncertain terms as the nation state of a particular group, and as far as I know, nobody has yet thought of withholding recognition because there may also be minorities in this state that do not identify as part of the nation. Moreover, when we look around in the region, Israel is for sure the best place to live when you belong to a minority. Like minorities everywhere – including in Europe – Israel’s Arab citizens may have reason to complain about various disadvantages, but most are arguably better off than if they lived in a neighboring state as part of the Arab majority. In this context it’s also interesting to note that Palestinians don’t seem to have similar demands and claims towards Arab states with sizable Palestinian populations. Is it acceptable that Jordan is the “Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan” when at least two thirds of its population is Palestinian? Well, maybe Jordan doesn’t count, since it has already a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian queen… And indeed, we do know that the Palestinians didn’t demand a state while the West Bank was annexed by Jordan and Gaza was administered by Egypt. One could almost think that the Palestinians only start to have problems when Jews are involved.

Given Landau’s reference to the fact that the “United Nations spoke of a Jewish state and an Arab state back in the 1940s,” we might also recall – as Israel’s UN Ambassodor Ron Prosor recently noted – that “General Assembly resolution 181 (II) dividing the British Mandate over Palestine referred to the creation of a Jewish State 25 times.” It didn’t mention a Palestinian state because at the time, only few had ever heard of a “Palestinian people.” Even today, official Palestinian documents insist that “Palestine is part of the large Arab World, and the Palestinian people are part of the Arab Nation.”

Yet, Israel’s “fundamentalist” Prime Minister is willing to acknowledge that nowadays, the Palestinians regard themselves as a people that should have a state of their own. At a recent meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome, Netanyahu said: “peace is premised on mutual recognition, of two states for two peoples, of the Palestinian state for the Palestinian people mirrored by the Jewish state for the Jewish people.” Admittedly, he also mentioned the f-word, adding: “I think that’s fundamental for any peace”…

But while Netanyahu probably can’t say anything that would cause his left-wing critics to let go of their convenient bogeyman, Haviv Rettig Gur has recently argued – rightly, in my view – that Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians make peace with Israel as the Jewish state must be understood in the context of the well-documented Palestinian demonization of Israel as fundamentally illegitimate and evil.

As it turns out, not even a veteran Israeli dove like Jerusalem Post columnist Gershon Baskin can argue on a Palestinian website in favor of the demand to recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Baskin writes that he can’t quite understand why the Palestinians would find it so difficult to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. But it’s not so hard to explain: the two major components of Palestinian identity are the very recent secular one which depends almost exclusively on implacable hostility to Israel, and the religious one which is based on centuries of Islamic imperialism and supremacism. Acknowledging that an ancient people like the Jews have any rights in their historic homeland will inevitably undermine both the secular and the religious component of Palestinian identity.

Two states for two peoples is a nice-sounding formula, but unfortunately, it’s not clear that the Palestinians have a strong enough identity to really feel as a people that can pull together for the difficult task of building a functioning state. Of course, Gaza is already a statelet, and the vast majority of Palestinians in the West Bank are living under the rule of a Palestinian administration that is recognized by most UN members as representing the Palestinian state. The bizarre make-belief quality of this UN recognition may well carry over to any future “peace” agreement; yet, since it would mean the end of Israel as we know it – and the end of Israel as the Jewish state – to absorb the Palestinians on the West Bank as Israeli citizens, I’m all for a solution that would somehow resolve the problem of Palestinian statelessness.

* * *

First published at my JPost blog on October 25, 2013

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