Special Report

The Palestinians’ Jewish-State Hang-Up

A two-state solution for two peoples? Not so fast.

By 9.24.10

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A meeting in New York this week of the UN's Ad-Hoc Liaison Committee ended on a dissonant note. The committee's purpose is to coordinate financial aid for the Palestinian Authority. At this meeting, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was in attendance representing Israel, and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was there on behalf of the PA.

Fayyad, however, stormed out of the meeting over a disagreement with Ayalon, leading to the cancellation of a press conference.

Ayalon had refused to approve a summary of the meeting that used the phrase "two states" -- referring to the putative resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that is seen as the end-goal of the recently relaunched peace talks. Ayalon had demanded instead that the summary use the phrase "two states for two peoples," and Fayyad reacted by exiting the premises.

A tempest in a teacup? Semantics? Not quite.

As Ayalon told Ynet, the website of Israel's largest daily Yediot Aharonot, "I demanded to know what they meant. One Palestinian state and one binational state, or another Palestinian state? I made it clear that we were out of the picture if the summary didn't say two states for two peoples."

The question, in other words, is how the Palestinians -- even as represented by reputedly moderate leaders like Fayyad and PA president Mahmoud Abbas -- would regard Israel even if a two-state settlement were to be reached. If they remain unable to accept Israel as a permanently existing, fully legitimate Jewish state, there are two ramifications.

One is that the current talks -- if they don't break down before then -- would likely break down on the "refugee" issue. In other words, the demand that the descendants of Arabs who left Israel in the 1948-49 war, still domiciled six decades later in "refugee camps" in Arab countries and the PA itself, be allowed to "return" to Israel. Such a demand spells Israel's demographic demise as a Jewish state and is seen as anathema across the Israeli political spectrum.

The other ramification is that, even if the refugee issue were somehow to be finessed in the negotiations, a Palestinian state that did not accept Israel as a Jewish state would not be a factor for peace or a genuine resolution of the conflict. Instead it would keep working to subvert Israel through various means, from terror to alliances with hostile countries like Iran to stoking agitation among Israel's sizable Israeli Arab minority, whose leadership already calls for dissolving Israel into a binational or non-Jewish state.

Since his landmark speech at Bar-Ilan University in June last year, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stressed the Jewish-state issue. In the speech, under heavy pressure from the Obama administration, Netanyahu broke with his own and his Likud Party's longstanding position and accepted the principle of a sovereign Palestinian state. Netanyahu hedged this acceptance with two conditions -- that the Palestinian state be demilitarized, and that the Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish state.

The notion of the Palestinian state's demilitarization was already long familiar, though Netanyahu had been among those raising incisive points about its feasibility. The Jewish-state emphasis, though, was new in the context. It could be interpreted either as an attempt to highlight to the U.S., and the West in general, that there is a crucial issue of Israel's genuine acceptance by the Palestinians and the Arab world, without which "peace" agreements will solve nothing; or as a prospective negotiating tactic against Abbas, Fayyad, and crew. It was actually a combination of both.

Since then Abbas and Fayyad have indeed remained unable to get over the lump in their throats when it comes to saying "Jewish state." Most recently Abbas resorted to mocking the idea, saying Israel could call itself "the Israeli Zionist Jewish Empire" for all he cares; and Fayyad has had the latest two-states contretemps with Ayalon.

The question is whether this is impressing anyone. In the case of Obama -- despite rhetorical obeisances to "Israel as the Jewish homeland" -- the answer is no, as he keeps pushing the peace talks hard despite the Palestinian recalcitrance. As for the Middle East Quartet, the international body responsible for the Israeli-Palestinian issue that comprises the U.S., the UN, the EU, and Russia, it released a statement this week that criticizes Israel for settlements and -- just barely -- Hamas for terrorism but says nothing about the Jewish-state matter.

Having already staked much on it, though, Netanyahu and his government should keep pressing the point home to those, including Congress and the American public, inclined to listen. Someone who, even though there are twenty-two Arab states and fifty-seven Muslim states, has grave difficulty with the idea of a single Jewish state is not much of a peace partner.

And considering that the land Israel is supposed to give up is of the greatest security and religious-historical value, and that the Middle East is characterized by volatility, ceding it is problematic and risk-fraught in any case. Ceding it to someone who remains fundamentally antagonistic is a formula for something other than peace.

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About the Author

P. David Hornik is a writer and translator in Beersheva, Israel, blogging at PDavidHornik.typepad.com.