Stating the Obvious

The story is told about Josef Stalin at the Yalta Conference that, bored by a discussion about the role of the Vatican in postwar Europe, he asked brusquely, “How many divisions has the pope?”

He had a point: The pope had none. And yet, although diplomatic verbal disputes often seem academic, the diplomats continue to wrangle — in part because words have implications that have a way of not going away. The current debate between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, in the run-up to the Annapolis summit — about whether the solution they are aiming for is one of “two states” (the Palestinian formulation) or of “two states for two peoples” (the Israeli formulation) — is a good example.

After all, what difference does it make? There will be, if and when an agreement is reached, a state called Israel and a state called Palestine, and relations between them will be determined by the facts on the ground. How many divisions will the words of this agreement have?

To which, there is an answer: They may not have divisions now, but they may one day be capable of moving them. Let’s reflect on this.

When the Palestinians speak of a “two-state” solution, what is it that they have in mind? The answer seems clear. On the one hand, there will be a State of Palestine that will be inhabited entirely by Palestinian Arabs, since the Jewish settlers now living within its future boundaries will be required to evacuate their settlements. At no point has the Palestinian Authority been willing to consider allowing these settlers to remain as residents of Palestine, and at no point has the government of Israel broached such a possibility either. Palestine, it is agreed by both parties, will be one state for one people: the Palestinians.

And yet, in Israel, even if (as all Israeli governments have insisted) no Palestinian refugees will be allowed to return, there will continue to live two peoples: a Jewish majority and an Arab minority. Will Israel be one state composed of two peoples but for only one of them — that is, a Jewish state for the Jewish people in which Arabs will be citizens with equal rights as individuals but without a collective or national status equal to that of the Jews? Or will it rather be a state in which the Jewish people have no special status?

The former is the Israeli negotiating position: Hence, “two states for two peoples” — one for Arabs and one for Jews. The latter is the Palestinian position: Hence, “two states” — one for Palestinians and one for Palestinians and Jews. This explains why, too, Palestinian negotiators, while ready to recognize the State of Israel in a peace agreement, have refused to recognize it “as a Jewish state.” To their minds, Israel must be a bi-national state, shared by Jews and Arabs alike — or, to use the current buzz phrase of Israel’s Arab political leaders, not a “Jewish state” but a “state of all its citizens.”

Although this might seem like a mere semantic quarrel, it is one with great implications. The State of Palestine will be, as the Palestinians envision it, a state whose national symbols, language, culture, educational system, institutions, calendar, immigration and naturalization policies, and so on will be at the service of the Palestinian Arab people; the State of Israel will not, in the same sense, be at the service of the Jewish people. It will be run as a Jewish-Arab condominium that must take the needs of both groups equally into account.

And if it is not run this way? What if, for instance, the State of Israel refuses to abolish its Law of Return, which favors Jewish immigrants over non-Jewish ones, or does not approve of the establishment of Arab-language universities that can grant the same degrees as Hebrew-language universities, or declines to recognize Muslim holidays as, in the manner Jewish holidays, national days of rest? If Israel is not defined as a Jewish state in an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, then in the future, policies of this sort can be interpreted as violations of such a treaty and even as pretexts for abrogating it. The question of Israel’s Jewishness would thus be internationalized; no longer would it be a strictly internal Israeli affair, but rather part of Israel’s relations with its Palestinian neighbor and with the entire Arab and Muslim world. For those who wish Israel to remain a Jewish state, this would clearly be a dangerous situation.

Of course, it can be argued that Israel’s Arab minority, supported by the State of Palestine and other Arab countries, will in any case increasingly challenge the idea of Israel’s Jewishness, regardless of what any peace agreement says. This may be true — yet that doesn’t make it any wiser to legitimize such a challenge in advance. Two states for two peoples is a position to which Israel should adhere if it doesn’t want to ask for unnecessary trouble.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to


Stating the Obvious

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