Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On the "Jewish State" Demand

The US has officially backed -- or at least expressed its sympathy -- for Bibi Netanyahu's demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state in exchange for a settlement freeze. Hussein Ibish, on the other hand, thinks that it demonstrates Netanyahu isn't serious about negotiations at all. What gives?

I think Ibish's position, though characteristically well-argued, is not quite right. The strongest argument against Netanyahu's request is that it exchanges something effectively permanent (recognition as a Jewish state) for something temporary (a settlement freeze of indeterminate duration). That's a fair point, but, as I think we'll see, it is something that could be worked around.

Ibish's other arguments, however, are unpersuasive. First, he claims that Israel's Jewish character was never a sticking point in Israel's negotiations with Egypt or Jordan. But that's primarily because Israel's Jewish character did not touch on any core claims of Jordanian or Egyptian nationalism. By contrast, it is a significant thread of the Palestinian national project that all of what is now Israel should really be Palestine -- "a Palestine next to a Palestine", as BDS founder Omar Barghouti described his ambition. The "greater Israel" project has the same ambition in reverse, which is why any permanent settlement has to be phrased as two states for two peoples. Otherwise it will have the feeling of but a temporary cease-fire in a larger conflict (which, in all honesty, is not particularly far off from Israel's relationship with Egypt and Jordan, whose civil society has always been furious that Israel yet breathes).

Second, he says that the "Jewish state" declaration is not merely symbolic, but has tangible impacts on the final resolution of concrete status items like refugees and Jerusalem. The latter is left essentially unargued, and the former is an area upon which everyone understood Palestinians will have to make significant concessions anyway. Palestinians demanding a total right of return is like Israel demanding to keep every settlement in the West Bank -- it's beyond a non-starter, it's a joke.

But the biggest problem is that Ibish's entire argument doesn't warrant what the PA actually did -- wholesale rejection of Netanyahu's gambit, accompanied by accusations of racism. What it warrants, as the US intimated, is a counter-offer. Ibish already concedes that President Bush's rendition of the "Jewish state" (that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people). So why not say that? Or better yet: "We are open to recognizing Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people as a product of final status negotiations." Then they don't even have to make the permanent-for-temporary-concession trade. But the PA didn't even look for something that, which indicates what many have long suspected: They're opposed to this sort of deal as a matter of kind, not degree.


N. Friedman said...

This is among your most coherent posts yet. Consider, next, the implication if, as is quite likely the case, the Palestinian Arabs never intend to accept the Jewish National movement as legitimate. What, then, are the implication of negotiating if the only future is a truce? That, as your current post suggests, is not an unrealistic possibility.

In fact, it is a likely one. One needs to consider your remarks in light of the stellar book, One State, Two States, by Benny Morris, where he makes a rather persuasive argument, with substantial evidence, that the Palestinian side will not accept Jewish nationalism as having any legitimacy and that any settlement will be of temporary duration. This, both for political and religious reasons.

PG said...

David, what do you think of the loyalty oath to be required for non-Jewish immigrants to Israel, in which one must swear allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state"? I was surprising that you didn't mention it in these posts on Netanyahu's demand for recognition by the PA of Israel as a Jewish state.

David Schraub said...

I think it's appalling, and the fact that it is only imposed on non-Jewish immigrants is nakedly discriminatory. There's really not much more to say about it. When you let Yisrael Beitanu set policies, bad things happen.

joe said...

Let us not talk normatively now.

Meaning the only new thing I have to say is about pretty basic game theory. Not gonna get into the rest of it.

If we accept that recognition is actually really important and not a red herring, that would mean it's a pretty hefty bargaining chip for the PA, which has limited resources and (at the risk of understatement) not much going for it militarily. Recognition would be one thing it has absolute control over, so even if the the concerns Ibish notes (that it's a backdoor repudiation of right of return and the status of Jeruslam, so it's giving up on major goals before talks even start) can be alleviated by tweaking the language, I don't see how it could possibly be given pre-final agreement, not without a major quid pro quo.

N. Friedman said...


I am writing in earnest in response to your post.

Let's talk about game theory and bargaining chips. You are certainly correct that recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people is a large bargaining chip. However, it is certainly no larger than Israel ceding, in principle, its claim to hold land in the captured West Bank, which is, in effect, what the Palestinian Arabs seek as a pre-condition to talk.

As a practical matter, the Palestinian side could make its acceptance of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people conditional on Israel ceding sufficient territory for a viable Palestinian state. That would, I assume, be sufficient to Israel, showing that the Palestinians are negotiating in earnest.

As a matter of game strategy, that concession would neither commit the Palestinian Arabs to anything tangible - while Israel would restrict its rights to build, conditionally on a settlement - nor require the Palestinian Arabs to commit to anything which they would not, in the end, have to commit to anyway, assuming they mean to settle, not merely seek a hudna - as I believe they seek.

So, the question here is, if we are going to play President Obama's game, that the sides each give up on important points in public, at the outset, why not get something of symbolic importance out of the way first. That, after all, is exactly what Sadat did, when he went to Jerusalem to speak at the Knesset.

I do not think it is quite true - if this is what you are suggesting - that the Palestinian side has only a few bargaining chips. One can count them, but the chips that have been played thus far include, the use of terror, the campaign of the entire Arab world and greater Muslim world to delegitimize Israel, the potential for war, etc., etc. Which is to say, Palestinian Arabs have more bargaining chips than is typical for a group which is out of power because the Palestinian Arabs are part of a much larger group, which funds them, which supplies them with armaments, which legitimizes their political stance and which has influence over the West - as seen by the strong support by the EU states for the Palestinian Arab cause.


And, on top of that, PA officials have said for years that there are no circumstances where Israel will be recognized, in a final agreement or otherwise, as the homeland of the Jewish people.

N. Friedman said...


Ignore what I wrote after the word "Compare," which was something I considered writing but changed my mind on - evidently without deleting the words. Sorry.

joe said...

Well there's really no non-argumentative way to respond to that, so I won't.

PG said...

With regard to bargaining chips, do people really believe that the PA/Hamas has total control over how other Arabs or Muslims or anyone else views Israel's legitimacy? If not, what's the point of counting the views of others' on Israel's legitimacy as a chip?

N. Friedman said...


If I might respond to you as earnestly as I can, were the matter a dispute where only the views of average people were involved, the dispute would have settled long ago, likely in 1947. It has, as I understand the history, been elite opinion makers who have been adamant in opposing the grant of any legitimacy to sovereignty for the Jewish people.

What the Israelis are looking for, I think, is the acceptance of their legitimacy by Palestinian Arab elites, who are, historically speaking, least likely to be interested in resolving the dispute. On this, see Ephraim Karsh's fascinating new book, Palestine Betrayed, in which he closely tracks, during the period of Israel's creation, the views of average Palestinian Arabs and elites among them. The average person was far more interested in going along and getting along than the elites. And, it was the elites who drove the dispute, spurning compromise.

I think that what the Israelis demand makes particular sense when dealing with a non-liberal, non-democratic society where consensus and shame play an inordinate role in forging and controlling public opinion. The role of elites is, I think, far greater in such a society than in a liberal democratic polity.