Courtesy Reuters

What About Israeli Rejectionism?

Why the Jewish State Must Recognize Palestine

Yosef Kuperwasser and Shalom Lipner's "The Problem Is Palestinian Rejectionism" (November/December 2011) hangs on an echo -- perhaps an unconscious one -- of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University. "The Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state stands at the root of the struggle and behind every so-called core issue," the authors argue. "Rather than focus on the issues of settlement activity and territory, success in the negotiations will first require at least a tentative change in the Palestinian position on recognizing Israel as a Jewish state." This is a prime example of the ongoing attempts to revive the increasingly incredulous myth that a peace-loving Israel simply has "no partner for peace."

One fact is undisputed: In 1993, the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized "the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security" through the letters of mutual recognition exchanged between then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. The authors correctly note that the declaration did not imply a Palestinian recognition of a "Jewish state." However, they inaccurately interpret the omission as proof of a thinly concealed Palestinian scheme to pretend to support a two-state solution.

The truth is less dramatic. The declaration did not include the recognition of a "Jewish state" for the simple reason that Israeli leaders had not asked for it. And this was hardly an accident; they made no such request in the years that preceded the Oslo accords and did not include any such statement in the "road map for peace" or the "joint understanding" of the 2007 Annapolis Conference. Contrary to Kuperwasser and Lipner's claim, the demand to gain outside recognition for a Jewish state is a position without precedent.

Of course, Israel has officially characterized itself as a "Jewish and a democratic state" since amending the basic law in the 1980s. Still, virtually no international actor, including Arab states with diplomatic relations with Israel, has ever been asked to embrace this designation. That is not surprising: Intertwining the ethnic and religious identity of a state with the question of legal recognition is not a common practice in international relations. Notwithstanding occasional references, even Washington, Israel's most staunch supporter, has never recognized Israel as a "Jewish state." To the contrary, U.S. President Harry Truman personally removed the term in the formal letter of recognition of Israel in 1948, replacing it with the handwritten correction "State of Israel."

As Kuperwasser and Lipner correctly point out, the main Palestinian concern with recognizing a Jewish state has to do with the rights of Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian minority in Israel. As the authors know, Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state would be interpreted as waiving the right of return and forfeiting the rights of Palestinians in Israel before even beginning final status negotiations.

Along with Kuperwasser and Lipner, Netanyahu in his Bar-Ilan speech took as a point of departure the notion that "the root of the conflict has been -- and remains -- the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to its own state." The prime minister also demanded a "demilitarized" Palestinian state, called on Palestinians to "overcome Hamas," give up the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, forsake internationally recognized claims to Jerusalem, and accept "normal life" in Israeli settlements. Remarkably, Kuperwasser and Lipner practically overlook that last part, even though settlements are one of the fundamental hurdles to progress. In fact, according to a recent estimate by the Israeli nongovernmental organization B'Tselem, settlements today control more than 40 percent of the West Bank.

Conspicuously, Kuperwasser and Lipner choose to focus solely on Palestinian ideological "rejectionism." Certainly, programmatic shortcomings exist in the Palestinian political movements, but the authors neglect the ideological rejectionism on the Israeli side. The Likud Party's 1999 platform "flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan River" and considers Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza a "realization of Zionist values." Similarly, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party considers the very concept of land for peace "fundamentally flawed." The programmatic stance of Netanyahu's coalition partner, Shas, is equally uncompromising: Its document of principles flatly declares that "Jerusalem is not an issue for negotiation or for division" and that "Shas will work for the continuation of settlements in Judea and Samaria." Likewise, Habayit Hayehudi, the smallest and most radical right-wing party in the Israeli government, unambiguously declared in 2009 that "there will be no Palestinian state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean," since "Jordan is the Palestinian state."

These positions may not reflect a broad Israeli consensus. However, Kuperwasser and Lipner fiercely justify their call for the recognition of a Jewish state by stressing the need to "ease Israeli fears about the Palestinians' true motivations." They would be well advised to apply the same principle to the current Israeli government.

Finally, the authors' focus on "Palestinian rejectionism" prevents them from recognizing constructive developments in the Palestinian Authority. For the authors, the PA "is only a would-be state without any legacy of governance or practice in exercising a monopoly over violence." And given this Palestinian inability to govern responsibly, any Palestinian state would be prone to "serve as a launch pad for terrorist strikes against Israel's heartland."

The authors appear to have lost touch with current events. Not usually known for a pro-Palestinian bias, last April the World Bank declared that, under Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, state-building programs have fundamentally transformed the territory. And in its economic monitoring report, the World Bank stipulates that the PA "has continued to strengthen its institutions, delivering public services and promoting reforms that many existing states struggle with" while reiterating its assessment that Palestine "is well positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future."

Contrary to the current Israeli government's claims, demanding further verbal Palestinian concessions is the least productive means of advancing genuine political progress. Instead of fabricating new conditions, what is needed is a willingness of the government of Israel to acknowledge legitimate demands of Palestinians, namely, the right to live freely in an independent state, and to back this acceptance with constructive steps on the ground. Kuperwasser and Lipner's obsessive focus on "Palestinian rejectionism" makes them oblivious to the fact that, since the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, policies of rejectionism have so far managed to keep only one state off the map: the state of Palestine.

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