One of the most complex and confounding elements that emerged during the run-up to the Annapolis meeting was the demand by several senior Israelis, and its parallel rejection by Palestinian officials, that the Palestinians recognize Israel as “a Jewish state” as a precondition for the start of talks. Israel’s demand that the Arabs recognize it “as a Jewish state” cannot be taken frivolously, however strongly one feels about it. It resonates with many Israelis with the same magnitude as resolving the refugees’ status does with Palestinians. It is a core, existential issue, perhaps the single most important issue for Israelis. It will come up again, forcefully, and soon. Israelis have assumed that the Oslo accords and the PLO’s 1988 recognition of Israel’s “right to exist” recognized Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, and a majority Jewish state. This is basically correct. Yet the Palestinian and Arab recognition of Israel has never been one-sided, one-dimensional, offered in a vacuum, or fully unconditional. The various acknowledgements of Israeli statehood, and the acceptance of the existing Jewish-majority Israeli state — including in the Annapolis process — have always assumed simultaneous movement towards a resolution of the statelessness of the Palestinians that resulted from the creation of Israel in 1948.
It seems obvious that Israeli and Palestinian demands for reciprocal national acknowledgement must be, above all, just that — reciprocal. Israelis cannot realistically expect the Arabs to recognize the Jewish nature of Israel in a void, unilaterally, or at the start of negotiations, without some reciprocal signals or firm gestures on the three issues that are of the same magnitude and importance for the Palestinians: the Palestinian state to be created in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem; the condition and rights of the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, who comprise nearly one-fifth of Israeli citizens; and a resolution of the Palestinian refugees’ status.
The issue of the Jewish nature of Israel is so vital for Israelis that it cannot be left totally hanging in the air, rejected outright, or vaguely held out as an undefined goal or prize to be attained after some future negotiations. In the same way, we in the Arab world cannot be expected to become instant Zionists, proclaiming Israel as a Jewish state, while it continues to offer the Palestinians and other Arabs brutal and long-term occupation, colonization and theft of our lands, apartheid-like segregation in the Occupied Territories, second class citizenship inside Israel, the jailing of over 10,000 activists and militants, routine assassinations, and collective punishment of the entire Gaza population by strangulation combined with slowly reducing its supplies of gas and electricity. This is the reality of “the Jewish state” that several generations of Palestinians have endured. It is an ugly sight, as are the suicide bombings and missiles fired at Israel by Palestinians and Lebanese. But war is an ugly endeavor, and we remain in a wasteful state of war, occupation, resistance and mutual denial. Israel will not recognize or talk with Palestinians who attack it, and similarly it cannot expect us to give formal recognition and the blessings of our political legitimacy to an Israeli Jewish state whose interaction with Palestinians and Arabs comprises mainly occupation, imprisonment, colonization, land expropriation, assassinations, routine assaults and beatings, daily humiliations, mass economic regression, and apartheid-like dehumanization. We have here the classic chicken and egg conundrum: Israel will not change its policies unless it feels secure and gets Arab acceptance, but it will never feel secure or get our acceptance while it pursues its present brutal, apartheid-like policies. How can Palestinians, Israelis and other Arabs seek to transcend this condition of warfare and reciprocal national denial, and instead find their way towards mutual recognition and peaceful coexistence? How to get out of this dizzying, immobilizing maze? The answer would seem to rest in mutual recognition and acknowledgement, instead of mutual denial and demonization. As that great American political philosopher Bob Dylan said in one of his war protest songs in the 1960s, “I’ll let you be in my dream, if you let me be in yours.” In this case, Israeli and Palestinian national narratives must make room for the other, if either wishes to be acknowledged and legitimized. Mutual denial will only get us to where we are today — perpetual warfare and chronic mutual national rejection. Israel ultimately must recognize the crimes it and others committed against the Palestinians, and the unstable conditions created by Palestinian national statelessness must be redressed by statehood and a just, negotiated resolution of the refugee issue. Israel, in the same vein, ultimately must be recognized as a state of the Jewish people, as it defines itself, but this can only be formally done as part and consequence of serious negotiations for a comprehensive, permanent peace that resolves fairly the Palestinian national shattering.
Both sides would do well to make these positions crystal clear, so that a Jewish Israel and a reconstituted, healed, wholesome Palestinian state and national community can live normal lives, side-by-side, with equal rights.
Rami G. Khouri is an internationally syndicated columnist, the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, and co-laureate of the 2006 Pax Christi International Peace Award.
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