Isn’t Israel Already a ‘Jewish State’?

Peace Talks Held Hostage by Semantic Roadblock

Semantic Demands: Israeli leaders insist Palestinians must first recognize Israel as a Jewish state before talks. If Israel’s already a Jewish state, what is the big problem?
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Semantic Demands: Israeli leaders insist Palestinians must first recognize Israel as a Jewish state before talks. If Israel’s already a Jewish state, what is the big problem?

By Leonard Fein

Published June 03, 2012, issue of June 08, 2012.
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A leading Palestinian negotiator says that for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state would “adversely impact the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel.” Not at all, say Yosef Kuperwasser, director general of Israel’s ministry of strategic affairs and Shalom Lipner, special coordinator for public diplomacy in the Prime Minister’s Office. This, they insist, “is a baseless argument, since Israel will continue to guarantee the full and equal civil rights of all its citizens.”

That so-called “guarantee” is under accelerating threat these days, and in any event has never extended beyond civil rights. As the Jewish Federations of North America has boldly reported, “Inequalities between Arabs and Jews in Israel are staggering, limiting Israel from realizing the aspirations of social and political equality set forth in its Declaration of Independence. Israeli Arabs and Jews experience significantly inequitable rates of quality of life across the board — from poverty and unemployment to health outcomes and education levels.” And Kuperwasser and Lipner, who believe that it is “the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state” that “stands at the root of the conflict,” know this. It is not a state secret. It is a depressing constant of Israeli life, and has survived promise after promise to repair it.

They tell their distorted version in an article, since widely circulated, in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, where they go on to add a more important albeit less obvious fiction: They say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is not a new precondition for peace; that demand has in fact been around for a long time. Their evidence? “[T]he official reservations of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government to the ‘road map’ peace plan, introduced in 2002, highlighted the absence of Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and insisted that ‘declared references must be made to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and to the waiver of any right of return for Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel.’”

That is true. It was one of 14 reservations Israel appended to its formal approval of the Road Map in May of 2003. But not one of the stated reservations was referred to in a December 2003 speech by Sharon in which he described the Road Map as “a balanced program for phased progress toward peace, to which both Israel and the Palestinians committed themselves…. The Roadmap is a clear and reasonable plan, and it is therefore possible and imperative to implement it.”

Israel is, obviously, de facto and de jure a Jewish state. Why does it matter that the Palestinians formally acknowledge the obvious? There is no mention in Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan of Israel’s Jewish character. The underlying rationale for Netanyahu’s demand is perfectly clear and derives precisely from the linkage contained in the Sharon reservation, the linkage between Israel as a Jewish state and the waiver of any right of return for Palestinian refugees. In other words, the Netanyahu demand for recognition is in reality an effort to dispense with one volatile element in the conflict before negotiations commence.

Talking past each other is the routine form of conversation on the Israel/Palestine conflict. Arguments are rarely joined; they are simply ignored, as each side seeks to raise the questions to which it believes it has persuasive answers and to avoid the questions that niggle away at its “proofs.” The same issue of Foreign Affairs that includes the Kuperwasser/Lipner article includes as well an essay by Ronald Krebs, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota, who is convinced that “the conflict threatens Israel not because the Palestinians want to drive the Jews into the sea but because it is transforming the country into a cynical and illiberal place.”

And peace? Neither side trusts the other, because neither has proven trustworthy; neither is currently able to muster the needed energy or imagination to pursue it.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


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