It appears that two issues currently are holding up the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, backed by the majority of Israeli Jews and the entire world Jewish community, wants the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), supported by other Arab states, including Egypt, absolutely refuses to do so.
For his part, Abu Mazen asserts that he will walk out of the talks if Israel lifts its construction freeze on the West Bank. Netanyahu has not said that he would not extend the freeze. But he has not said that he would either. In the meantime, it is being reported that Israel is making ready to construct several thousand new housing units on the West Bank should the freeze come to an end in about two weeks.
On its face, the Israeli request seems reasonable enough. Fully three-fourths of Israel’s population is Jewish, while Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, account for a touch over 20 percent of all Israeli citizens. Moreover, despite dire predictions to the contrary, it is unlikely that the state will be evenly divided between Arabs and Jews for decades, if ever; certainly the trends point in the opposite direction. The Jewish birth rate is increasing to nearly 2.9 children per family, while that of Arab Muslims has declined from over 3.8 children per family to just over 3.7 since 2008. Arab Christian birth rates are increasing somewhat, but at below 2.15 children per family are still lower than those of Jewish Israelis.
Why then won’t the Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish state? It is not because non-Jews would lose their identity in a Jewish state. A democratic Jewish state would no more obliterate Arab identity than has the Islamic Republic of Iran erased those of its minorities, including Jews. Iran, which qualifies at best as a rather peculiar form of democracy, actually grants official recognition to Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews, and seats them in its parliament. For its part, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan officially tolerates the use of alcohol by Christians and Zoroastrians and permits them to retain their ancient traditions.
What gives the Palestinians pause regarding a Jewish state is their concern that it would effectively terminate the right of Palestinian return to whatever territory ultimately constitutes the State of Israel. But the Palestinian leadership knows full well that any peace agreement would de facto trade away that right, even if Palestinians continue to espouse it, much as an Israeli retreat from most of the West Bank would not stop many Jews from dreaming of a return to all of Biblical Judea and Samaria.
For his part, Netanyahu recognizes that settlement (actually many “settlements” are small cities) construction cannot go on if he really expects to reach an agreement with Abu Mazen. Building simply will have to come to a halt, sooner rather than later. But Netanyahu wants to prolong the support of his right wing for as long as possible, so as to build up momentum for an agreement that would overwhelm the Right even as it protests not only the end of construction but withdrawal from most of the West Bank.
Any good deal requires each side to give something up that it views as less important than what it would receive in return. For Netanyahu, a Palestinian agreement to accept Israel as a Jewish State would be a historic victory, but, at the same time, for Abu Mazen it would involve nothing more than a confirmation of reality. For Abu Mazen, a permanent freeze on construction would likewise constitute a major success—construction has been ongoing since 1967—yet at the same time for Netanyahu it would reflect nothing more than what he claims is a sincere commitment to an agreement that would instantly render settlement construction moot.
It would seem that whoever first proposes such an arrangement would generate great pressure on his counterpart to accept it. Were Abu Mazen to propose it first, public opinion in Israel, already supportive of a peace agreement, would swing solidly behind a freeze on construction, boxing the settlers, the Israeli Right and Netanyahu himself into a tight political corner. Were Netanyahu to offer Abu Mazen a freeze in exchange for recognition of a Jewish state of Israel, the Palestinian would find it difficult to justify his stubborn refusal to come to terms with reality in the face of a sea change in Israeli West Bank policy. And if either man, having accepted the deal, would then hedge or renege, the other could follow suit immediately.
Would such a deal fly? Logically it should, but logic has long been absent in the endless cycle of talks that is euphemistically still called “The Peace Process.” Perhaps this time will be different. . . . Perhaps.