It often happens in sensitive negotiations between longtime adversaries. At a certain point they start talking in code.
Silent looks, secret words, raised eyebrows — messages only they understand. The baffled mediator stops everything and says, “Hey, what’s going on between you two?”
That’s how you know the most serious issues are finally on the table.
We have reached that moment in the talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and it is taking place around the words “Jewish state.”
Seemingly out of nowhere, questions over Jerusalem, settlements, borders, security and refugees have been eclipsed by something that seems entirely symbolic: Will the Palestinians recognize that Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people? The Israelis have declared it a deal breaker, while the Palestinians, with the backing of the Arab League, have rejected it outright.
What is the argument really about?
Symbols have a tendency to be, well, symbolic. In this case, accepting the Jewish state (rather than just a political entity called “Israel”) is understood by both sides to represent the ultimate, public and final abandonment of the long-standing explicit Palestinian goal of eradicating Israel, whether through violence or through the relocation of millions of people of Palestinian descent currently living in refugee camps around the Arab world.
To accept the Jewish state is to create the minimal conditions for an end to the conflict. It is to signal to the Palestinian factions, divisions, functionaries and public, as well as the whole global pro-Palestinian machine, that the era of “resistance” is reaching its end.
Both sides know it, and always have. Indeed, since the very beginning of the Zionist enterprise, rejection of the “Jewish state” idea — whether Jewish in character, in purpose, religiously or demographically, or any other reasonable definition— has always been the real core of the problem.