‘Just say it!” Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu recently exclaimed, calling on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish People. He was responding to a shrug from Abbas: “Israel can call itself the Zionist Jewish Empire.” With unfailing regularity, questions about recognition return to haunt and undermine Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
The intransigence of both sides on this issue is frustrating. Why do the Israelis so dearly want Palestinian recognition? Why does a nuclear superpower, in possession of one of the world’s most powerful and experienced armies and strategically backed by the United States, need Palestinian recognition in order to feel secure in its self-understanding?
It is true that our identity is shaped by the acknowledgement of others. And it can be misshaped when that acknowledgement is withheld. “Our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence,” the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes. A group of people “can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves.” Our self-understanding must be reflected back to us. One cannot be a good mother, a brilliant lawyer or, for that matter, a citizen of a democratic Jewish state if one is not acknowledged as such by her environment. Yet surely one doesn’t need to be acknowledged in that way by absolutely everyone for identity to count as real.
Israel is already recognized as the globe’s Jewish state. The U.S., the European Union and much of the rest of the world see it that way. Its identity is, to use the phrase Egyptian President Anwar Sadat employed when he came to Jerusalem in the late ‘70s, a fait accompli. It simply doesn’t matter that much how the Palestinians see it.
On the other hand, if, as some of their spokesmen have recently confirmed, the Palestinians are refusing to recognize Israel as the Jewish State because such recognition undermines the “the right of return” of Palestinian refugees into properties inside Israel, the peace negotiations are, indeed, futile. Israel might well agree to absorb a small number of returnees. But even the most compromise-minded Israelis reject a wholesale “right of return,” as this would signal the end of the state’s Jewishness. Palestinian recognition of Israel’s identity should not be made a condition for talking. But actively undermining that identity is another matter. There is often a difference between what we are willing to say and what we are willing to do. And the latter is, by far, the more important question in any peace process.
The abstractions of peace, the demands for “recognition” and “final status” are attractive. They give us a glimpse of Isaiah’s vision of beating swords into plowshares. But peacemaking, as George Mitchell, Richard Holbrooke or anyone with credible experience in ending wars will tell you, is not an abstract business. It is about cajoling and bullying intransigent political leaders into very specific, workable arrangements and then having the patience to enforce these arrangements. It is about improving the everyday lives of the ordinary people who are going to have to support those arrangements.
Peacemaking is about asking practical questions: How to renew the settlement-building freeze in the West Bank until some agreement is reached on the question of borders? What sort of regime will Jerusalem be under? Who will foot the bill for assimilating Palestinian refugees? Where will the funds for continued economic development of the Palestinian economy come from? What are the prospects of containing Hamas in Gaza? How do we make sure that Palestinian laborers don’t spend hours each day pushing and trampling each other while they wait at Israeli checkpoints? How do we guarantee that residents of southern Israel don’t live under the constant threat of shells and rockets?
Some of these questions have been worked out in a variety of interactions in the last decade. It is time to take a deep breath and work out the rest. Whether or not Abbas “just says it” has very little to do with the answers.
Nir Eisikovits teaches philosophy at Suffolk University. He is the author of “Sympathizing with the Enemy: Reconciliation, Transitional Justice, Negotiation” (Republic of Letters, 2009).