Prime Minister Netanyahu has recently chosen to place the long-standing Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, at the center of the negotiations. Heretofore a secondary issue, he even agreed to a temporary extension of the settlement freeze in exchange. Though the timing was clearly designed as a tactical ploy, the demand itself is substantive and highly important.
Why, the Palestinians ask, should they be required to address the question of Israel's character; it is enough that they recognize its right to exist. No, it is not enough. After sixty-six years of Israeli independence and nearly a century of conflict, the Palestinians must recognize Israel for what it is. They are not being asked to define Israel's character, merely to accept its self-definition.
But, rejoin critics of Israel, there is no symmetry here. Whereas Israel is being asked to recognize the right of the Palestinian nation to a state, the Palestinians are being asked to recognize a religious group's claim.
This is a fundamental misunderstanding of Jewish history, prevalent even among diaspora Jews. The Jews are unique, in that they are both a religious group and a people, a nation, with a right of self-determination. That is why we speak of the "Jewish people”, a Jewish nationhood, but not a Christian people, or a Muslim people. The Jews’ right to a nation-state was recognized by the League of Nations and United Nations. Israel is and always will be the nation-state of the Jewish people. That is its raison d'être, and it is high time that the Palestinians reconcile themselves to this.
The Palestinians argue that the Israeli demand is merely obstructionist; Israel already defines itself as it wishes and Palestinian recognition will have no bearing on its standing. Formally, this is true. Israel does not need Palestinian recognition to define itself.
What it does need is for the Palestinians to truly and irrevocably recognize Israel as it is, not just the Israeli state, which has guaranteed its existence by achieving military superiority, but the legitimacy of its character. Only when the Palestinians can bring themselves to do so, will Israel be confident that they are truly ready for peace, an end to the conflict and the painful concessions that will be required by all.
In recognizing the Israeli demand, the Palestinians charge, they are in effect being asked to forgo the refugees' “right of return” and adversely affect the standing of Israeli Arabs. Absolutely not. Recognition of the Israeli demand does not preclude the Palestinians’ demand for a “right of return”.
Conversely, it is abundantly clear to anyone truly committed to resolving the conflict, that this is a demand which the Palestinians will have to largely forgo. They can retain it for the meantime, as a negotiating card, but just as Israel will be required to make the major concessions on borders, settlements and Jerusalem, the Palestinians will have to do so on the refugees.
Furthermore, the Palestinians do not speak for Israeli Arabs. They already live in an Israel which defines itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Palestinian recognition thereof will not affect their standing—unless, of course, they still harbor hopes of changing Israel's character.
Israel, the Palestinians note, did not ask Egypt and Jordan to recognize its Jewish character as part of the peace agreements with them, just its right to exist. This is true, the difference being that, unlike the Palestinians, they did not claim all of Israel as their own, nor did they maintain that in recognizing Israel in its 1967 borders, they were being forced to cede 78 percent of their homeland, nor did they harbor hopes of return of their populations to Israel itself. With Egypt and Jordan, the conflict was ultimately over the occupied territories of 1967. With the Palestinians it is still over 1948.
At bottom, that is what the current debate is truly about. Most Israelis believe that the negotiations with the Palestinians are not really over the West Bank and Gaza, which most are willing to accept as the Palestinian state, but over the Palestinians' ongoing refusal to accept the legitimacy of Israel's right to exist, as the nation-state of the Jewish people, even within the 1948 borders.
Paradoxically, a case can be made that it was unnecessary to present the demand for recognition to begin with. Once, however, the Palestinians expressed reservations and then rejected it out of hand, it has become essential.
Chuck Freilich was a Deputy National Security Advisor in Israel. He is now a Senior Fellow at Harvard's Kennedy school and is an Adjunct Professor of political science at both Harvard and NYU.