True confession: I have never understood the current Israeli demand that Arab states recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” Unless, that is, it is meant primarily as a roadblock to any successful peace settlement.
It is not as though I don’t take societal narratives seriously; I’ve edited two books and written a bunch of articles on their importance in this conflict. However, I don’t think a coerced narrative is worth much, unless combined with total defeat (a la Germany and Japan in World War II). But the only reason we have negotiations going on under the umbrella of a twenty year-old “peace process” is that both sides reluctantly recognized that total victory is not an option.
Arabs understand the demand as trying to extract a barely disguised confession that they were wrong at every point in opposing Jewish immigration, Zionism, and the establishment of the state of Israel, and I can’t see what other purpose it has. But when, aside from total capitulation, has even a defeated enemy had to announce publicly that they were wrong from the beginning? And does anyone believe that a Palestinian government that agreed to that could survive? Or that those Palestinians inclined to destroy Israel would, in any way, feel themselves bound by such a confession? Is there a way that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state could be understood other than saying that all resistance to Zionism since 1882 was politically and even morally wrong? Is humiliation the point? It is hard to conclude otherwise.
The official line is that if Arabs recognize Israel as a (the?) Jewish state, their otherwise unquenchable yearning to destroy Israel will be quenched, gone, finito. Putting these magic words in a treaty will bind them securely, while other words pledging peace, exchanging ambassadors, promising trade ties, etc., can (and probably will) be repudiated at any opportunity. Why would this obviously unwilling and meaningless formula be respected while other, more tangible and enforceable promises wouldn’t be?
What about precedents? I have found none. There are many other states that advertise their legitimacy in their names, e.g., the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela; great role models that Israel could emulate as the “Jewish State of Israel.” Let Israel rename itself. But no state, as far as I have been able to determine, has ever demanded that others, let alone its enemies, specifically recognize a particular claim to legitimacy. Diplomatic “recognition” is intended primarily as an acceptance that a regime exercises a monopoly of organized violence within certain borders, and not even necessarily that. It is not generally an endorsement of a “right to exist,” it is a recognition of de facto existence. As far as I can see the Israeli demand is unique.
Frankly, the demand has always struck me as a confession of weakness, of Israel as “Shimshon der Nebechdiker” (Samson the pathetic), in Levi Eshkol’s memorable phrase. For Israel to convince itself of its own self-proclaimed identity, does it really need a Palestinian imprimatur?
In my long-held view, well preceding the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, Arab states have for the most part tacitly accepted Israel and would like to move on. Jabotinsky was right in that Israel’s “Iron Wall’ eventually convinced them that there was nothing they could realistically do to get rid of it. (What Jabotinsky did not foresee was that Israel would not take “yes” for an answer.) The Arab states never liked the Palestinians anyway, and once it was clear that they were not going to be able to divide up Palestine, they lost interest. However, Palestine had become such an issue that their people wouldn’t let it go, without some credible expression that Arab and Muslim honor had been nominally satisfied and the Palestinians had some sort of state.
Israel’s existence became even less important as an issue for Arab leaders once Islamism reared its head, because that is a true danger to the Arab regimes. Now that Iran has become the bete noir of most of the Arab world, Saudi Arabia (the current de facto leading Arab power) seems to see its interests more aligned with those of Israel than with those of the U.S., and there are(supposedly) serious discussions of a Saudi-Israeli “alliance,” which seem absurd. But Israel still believes “the Arabs” will destroy Israel at their first opportunity despite all the evidence that most Arabs (by no means all, of course) have moved on.
Ah, but the Arab world is unstable, and who knows if a promise made by one regime will be kept by its successor? Apart from the example that one of the few things Egyptians are not fighting over is the treaty with Israel, could anyone maintain that a promise of peace would be broken but a recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would be honored? Does that make sense?
I recognize that my bewilderment is not shared by most Jews. There are probably more recent polls, but one in 2010 reported that 95% of American Jews felt that the demand that Arabs recognize Israel as a Jewish state is justified. And Prime Minister Netanyahu proclaims that the “root of conflict” is refusal of that recognition.
I doubt that most Jews who want to see such recognition understand that it is one of the biggest obstacles to the possibility of peace. I imagine that they see it as a simple tautology: Israel=Jewish state, the refusal of which could not but be the result of bad faith. But simple and obvious things are rarely that in international disputes. I still don’t understand why anyone who otherwise has no trust whatsoever in Arab promises would believe this one or, conversely, if you accept there is a willingness for peace, why do you need to try to grind Arab noses in the dust?