When peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians resumed last July, everyone assumed that the main sticking points would remain, as ever, security, borders, the status of Jerusalem and the plight of refugees.
It looks like everyone was wrong.
As the United States struggles to put together a framework deal that will allow negotiations to proceed beyond an initial April deadline, they have run into an unexpected roadblock - Israel’s firm demand to be recognised as a specifically Jewish state and the Palestinians’ adamant rejection of any such idea.
Although all the old, tangible issues remain unresolved, suddenly a conceptual one has become the major stumbling point; and one drenched in history and mutual recrimination.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said repeatedly during a visit to the United States this week that to secure peace, he needs Palestinian recognition, arguing that the issue goes to the heart of the generations-old conflict.
“Just as Israel is prepared to recognise a Palestinian state, the Palestinians must be prepared to recognise a Jewish state,” Netanyahu said on Tuesday.
“In recognising the Jewish state you would finally make clear that you are truly prepared to end the conflict. So recognise the Jewish state, no excuses, no delays. It is time,” he told the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby.
The United States has endorsed the Israeli position, but the Palestinians say that to concede on this point would be to jeopardise the rights of Israel’s sizeable Arab minority.
“This is like telling the Palestinians they did not exist all these hundreds and thousands of years, that this historically has been a Jewish land,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
“Palestine historically has been diverse. There have been many tribes here. Our history is not going to be something we can deny,” she told reporters at a recent news briefing.
The Palestine National Charter of 1964 defines Palestinians as “the Palestinian Arab people”.