Netanyahu’s deal-breaker

Ever since the Obama administration announced the beginning of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, a great deal of speculation has focused on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intentions. Is he really interested in a peace agreement with the Palestinians or is this just a ploy to appease President Obama and maintain U.S. ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Ever since the Obama administration announced the beginning of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, a great deal of speculation has focused on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's intentions. Is he really interested in a peace agreement with the Palestinians or is this just a ploy to appease President Obama and maintain U.S. support for Israel? Even if he is sincere in his publicly declared desire for a peace agreement, what price is he willing to pay? Will he jeopardize his fragile coalition government and risk his own political future? Will he forsake the right-wing ideology he was raised on and offer the Palestinians as much, if not more than his predecessors have? Many believe that the answers to these questions will determine the success or failure of this latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. There is, however, no need to speculate about whether Netanyahu can or will offer the Palestinians anything close to what they want. It is already clear that the Palestinians cannot give Netanyahu what he wants, namely, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. 

On numerous occasions, Netanyahu has unequivocally stated that one of his principal conditions for any peace agreement is official Palestinian acceptance of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. This has widely been interpreted as a tactical maneuver -- an Israeli demand aimed at countering the Palestinian demand for a ‘right of return' for Palestinian refugees. According to this interpretation, if the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state they must abandon their claim for a right of return, since the latter is tantamount to a negation of the former -- there is no way Israel can remain a Jewish state if it is flooded with potentially millions of Palestinian refugees.

Ever since the Obama administration announced the beginning of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, a great deal of speculation has focused on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intentions. Is he really interested in a peace agreement with the Palestinians or is this just a ploy to appease President Obama and maintain U.S. support for Israel? Even if he is sincere in his publicly declared desire for a peace agreement, what price is he willing to pay? Will he jeopardize his fragile coalition government and risk his own political future? Will he forsake the right-wing ideology he was raised on and offer the Palestinians as much, if not more than his predecessors have? Many believe that the answers to these questions will determine the success or failure of this latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. There is, however, no need to speculate about whether Netanyahu can or will offer the Palestinians anything close to what they want. It is already clear that the Palestinians cannot give Netanyahu what he wants, namely, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. 

On numerous occasions, Netanyahu has unequivocally stated that one of his principal conditions for any peace agreement is official Palestinian acceptance of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. This has widely been interpreted as a tactical maneuver — an Israeli demand aimed at countering the Palestinian demand for a ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees. According to this interpretation, if the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state they must abandon their claim for a right of return, since the latter is tantamount to a negation of the former — there is no way Israel can remain a Jewish state if it is flooded with potentially millions of Palestinian refugees.

Undoubtedly, Prime Minister Netanyahu is determined to prevent a Palestinian right of return to Israel. No Israeli prime minister would agree to this. But is this really all there is to Netanyahu’s repeated insistence on Palestinian recognition of Israel’s Jewish identity? Surely, Israel could simply just refuse the Palestinian demand for a right of return as it has done in all past negotiations. There is something else at stake here.

A Palestinian right of return is not the only threat to Israel’s future as a Jewish state. A more immediate and in many ways more difficult challenge comes from within Israel. It is Palestinian citizens inside Israel, rather than Palestinian refugees outside it, who pose the greatest challenge to Israel’s Jewishness.

In recent years, Palestinian citizens of Israel — ‘Israeli Arabs’ as Israeli Jews prefer to call them, or the ‘Arabs of ’48’ as they are known in the Arab world — have become much more politically assertive. They have also become much less willing to accept the status quo in Israel, one that privileges Jews over Arabs in a host of ways. Denouncing the discrimination and inequality they have long endured, growing numbers of Palestinians in Israel are now demanding that the state become a ‘state for all its citizens,’ instead of a Jewish one. It is this demand of the Palestinian minority in Israel for the state to no longer be Jewish, as much as the demand of the Palestinians in general for a right of return that Netanyahu hopes to put an end to.

The logic is clear: if the PLO (the organization negotiating on behalf of the Palestinians) accepts Israel as a Jewish state, then the Palestinian minority in Israel will also have to accept this. A Palestinian state for a Jewish one. This is, after all, the essence of the two-state solution to the conflict. The problem is that this solution glosses over the presence of a sizable Palestinian minority within Israel. Where do they fit in? Is their only choice to remain fundamentally second-class citizens in Israel or move to a future Palestinian state (as Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and other right-wing politicians have suggested)? Can their increasing desire for collective recognition and rights be accommodated within Israel if it remains a Jewish state? These questions are as crucial to the ultimate success of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as those concerning the future of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees, etc. Yet far too little attention has been paid to them.

By making a final status agreement conditional on the PLO’s acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, Netanyahu has put the issue of the Palestinian minority in Israel on the negotiating table. In doing so, he no doubt hopes that he can make peace and foreclose the possibility of turning Israel into a ‘state for all its citizens’ or even a binational one. This would certainly help him sell a peace agreement domestically. Indeed, if the Palestinians aren’t willing to recognize Israel’s Jewish identity, then many Israeli Jews may well conclude that a peace agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. The whole point for them is to live securely in a Jewish state, not just any state (although Israeli Jews bitterly disagree over what kind of Jewish state they want to live in).

While the demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state makes perfect sense and is entirely reasonable from an Israeli-Jewish point of view, it is unacceptable from a Palestinian point of view. Not only does it mean abandoning the right of return for Palestinian refugees (which, in any case, Palestinian negotiators have already compromised over), but also it means abandoning the Palestinian minority in Israel. To be sure, the PLO does not represent Palestinian citizens of Israel and has no official connection with them. But Palestinian President and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the rest of PLO leadership cannot easily ignore the fact that most Palestinians inside Israel today are strongly opposed to it remaining a Jewish state. To recognize Israel as a Jewish state would amount to a betrayal of their co-nationals. For this reason alone, therefore, Abbas is unlikely to agree to explicitly recognize Israel as a Jewish state in the framework of a comprehensive peace agreement.

No matter how flexible or pragmatic Netanyahu turns out to be, as long as he insists that a peace agreement establishing a Palestinian state also recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, it will be very difficult, if not impossible to reach such an agreement.

This does not mean though that the current peace talks are doomed. What it does mean is that in order for these talks to have any chance of success, some compromise on this issue must be found. This compromise should involve Palestinian recognition of Israel’s Jewishness and Israeli recognition of the collective rights of its Palestinian minority. There is nothing contradictory about this — Israel can still define itself as a Jewish state, while acknowledging that its Palestinian citizens constitute a national minority and are entitled to the collective rights that national minorities in many Western democracies have come to enjoy.

Unfortunately, given the recent wave of Knesset bills aimed against the Palestinian minority in Israel and the widespread anti-Arab public sentiment in Israel, there is little reason to believe that the Netanyahu government will be amenable to recognizing Palestinian collective rights inside Israel. Even the individual rights of Palestinians in Israel are now being challenged. It is up to the international community and the Obama administration in particular, therefore, to ensure that Israel recognizes and respects the individual and collective rights of its Palestinian citizens. Doing so could well be the key to peace.

Dov Waxman is an associate professor in political science at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author, with Ilan Peleg, of the forthcoming book Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within (Cambridge University Press).  

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