Paul Pillar

Who Sticks Up For Israeli Arabs?

The hang-up in current well-intentioned U.S. efforts to wring out of Israeli-Palestinian talks something that could be called a framework agreement—with the administration evidently so anxious for such a result that it is contemplating a move to buy favor with Israel that would be just as mistaken as the last time it came up—is a familiar example of each side wanting the other to move first. This sort of situation has arisen repeatedly in what we still call the Middle East peace process. The present stand-off involves implementation of a prior understanding according to which the Israelis would release some Arab prisoners while the Palestinian Authority would limit its diplomacy to talking with the Israelis and Americans rather than referring its grievances to international fora where anyone perpetuating an illegal occupation would have a decided legitimacy deficit.

Israelis are understandably reluctant whenever they are called on to release prisoners with blood on their hands. Palestinians are understandably reluctant to limit themselves perpetually to a talkfest that, 47 years and 650,000 Israeli settlers after the occupation began, still leaves them stateless.

The reluctance to go first is old. What is new in this round of the talkfest is the Netanyahu's government insistence that the Palestinian Authority perform some sort of anointment of Israel—the full and formal name of which is “State of Israel,” and which the Palestinians long ago formally recognized—as a “Jewish state”. The demand regarding the “Jewish state” formulation was not one that ever appeared during negotiation of Israeli peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, when indefinite delay was not an Israeli government objective.

Robert Satloff makes one of the more game and creative efforts to rationalize this inconsistency by saying that the conflicts with Egypt and Jordan were “essentially territorial disputes” whereas the one with the Palestinians is “existential” and raises “deep in the minds of many Israelis” that the Palestinians with whom they are negotiating “have a long-term plan to destroy Israel.” The idea of such an existential threat to an Israel that is overwhelmingly more powerful than the Palestinians and would remain so with a two-state solution is, of course, risible. It might cease to become so only over the long-term, and only because of demographic reasons and not secret plans, in the absence of a two-state solution. 

The Palestinian leadership is understandably resistant to the “Jewish state” demand partly because it would implicitly bias how to resolve the “right of return” issue, which today is really more an issue of right to compensation. The reluctance also is understandable because acceding to the demand would mean having Palestinian leaders explicitly endorsing second-class status for Arabs within Israel. That latter factor gets back to the current impasse over release of prisoners. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas says Arab Israeli prisoners should be included in the release; the Israeli government strongly opposes including them and contends that was never part of its understanding with the Palestinian Authority.

So there is another inconsistency at hand. The “Jewish state” demand implicitly draws a line that leaves on the outside the more than 20 percent of Israel's residents who are not Jewish. But the Israeli government has drawn another line that also leaves these people outside the orbit of those on whose behalf Abbas can speak or negotiate.

Israeli Arabs do have some political rights, being able to vote and elect members of the Knesset—although with an unwritten rule that Arab representatives can never be part of a governing coalition or form part of the necessary support for one. That would hardly make any less offensive a Palestinian Arab leader endorsing their second class status. The fact that there exist U.S. Congressional districts with large Jewish populations that regularly elect Jewish representatives would not make it any less offensive (and not just to the establishment clause of the Constitution) if the United States were to declare itself a “Christian state” and to insist that other nations declare it so as well.

The “Jewish state” demand is clearly another way for the current Israeli government to avoid coming to closure on creating a Palestinian state while seeking to attribute blame for any breakdown of negotiations to the Palestinians. It thus is a way to continue the occupation indefinitely without admitting that this is what is happening.

More broadly, the tactic is yet another indication of this Israeli government's refusal to recognize, as a geographic and demographic reality, that Israel cannot be democratic, Jewish, and sovereign over all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. It can be any two of those things but not all three. Netanyahu's government has in effect chosen, without admitting it, democracy as the characteristic to be discarded. This choice is the fundamental reason this round of negotiations, although it was admirable for the U.S. administration to have a go at it, faces failure.