The election of Binyamin Netanyahu marked a new, intransigent phase in the recent history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not that the period before provided any serious opportunities for peacemaking. Even then, however, Netanyahu has managed to add to the burden of making peace by creating two new additional obstacles.
First he has skirted, so far, any clear commitment to the principle of two states as the basic framework for a solution to the conflict even though this is the position of not only most Palestinians and Israelis but of the international community.
The second is his demand that the Palestinians accept to recognize Israel as a Jewish state before peace negotiations can proceed, or before any progress in such negotiations can be made.
While the first problem is being taken care of mainly by the United States, where there seems to be strong pressure on the new Israeli government to renew Israel’s commitment to a two-state solution, international players are conspicuous in their silence on Netanyahu’s second obstacle.
Palestinians and Arabs have three major problems with the Israeli demand to be recognized as a Jewish state. The first is that such recognition will undermine and further marginalize the position of the non-Jewish minorities in Israel, especially the Palestinian minority, which constitutes 20 percent of the population, but also of what appears to be a significant Christian minority among recent Russian immigrants.
With the election of Avigdor Lieberman and his party, which publicly promotes ridding Israel of most its Palestinian minority, this is an acute problem. But such fears are also valid in light of the long history of official Israeli discrimination against the Palestinian minority since the establishment of the state in 1948.
The second problem is that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state will augment the Israeli position against Palestinian refugees’ right of return to the lands and homes from which they were systematically and violently ejected in 1948.
By accepting the Oslo accords, Israel agreed that the right of return was one of four negotiable final status issues. But Israel is holding up the right of return as a deal breaker, saying that implementing this right would threaten the existence of Israel. This is simply unfounded. Palestinians and Arabs have extended a firm offer of recognition of the state of Israel, as evidenced by the Arab Peace Initiative. Furthermore, a change in the ethnic composition of any state, including Israel, does not threaten its existence as a state of all its people.
The third problem with the concept of the Jewish state is that it’s seen by many people, including Palestinians and Arabs, to be a racist concept that contradicts the modern notion of democratic political systems based on the equal and basic rights of all citizens of the state, regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations.
It would appear that Netanyahu is raising this condition now in order to throw a spanner in the works of the political process that the new US administration is apparently serious about restarting. It is an international as well as Palestinian responsibility to resist such an effort.
The definition of the nature of the state of Israel is ultimately an Israeli decision to make. It is not one that should be imposed on others, nor should it provide an avenue for Israel to escape its obligations under international law. Those obligations include ending the occupation, allowing for the creation of an independent Palestinian state and adhering to internationally acknowledged refugee rights.
None of that should jeopardize the existence of the state of Israel.