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.