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Debunking Hasbara: Why Israel wants recognition as a 'Jewish state'

Binyamin Netanyahu's government insists that Israel must be recognized as a "Jew

This blog post in Independent Jewish Voices' rabble.ca blog series "Debunking Hasbara" interrogates the public relations (Hasbara) claim that Israel must be recognized as a "Jewish state" in order for peace to be reached with its neighbours. 

It seems like it's been around forever, but believe it or not the demand by Israel to be recognized as a "Jewish state" is only eight-years old. Indeed, it is merely the latest of a long string of ploys to make a just peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours impossible. Practically every time that its neighbours have launched a peace initiative, Israel, feeling threatened thereby, has constructed a way to up the ante so as to frustrate the project.

A perennial complaint by Israel supporters up to a decade and a half ago was that Israel's neighbours would neither recognize Israel's existence nor its right to exist. Die-hard pro-Israel types would have us believe that the reason for this was anti-Semitism. 

But the real bone in the throat of Israel's neighbours was the existence of a western colonial-settler state in 78 per cent of historic Palestine, especially a state that had among the strongest armies in the world, nuclear weapons, and the full and active support of the United States. And, after the 1967 war, Israel occupied a further 22 per cent of historic Palestine, brutalized the population and encouraged Jewish settlements whose population now numbers half a million.

Yet, notwithstanding those valid reasons for enmity, truth be known, the Palestinians had been trying from at least the 1970s to reach a peace agreement with Israel, but found no partner for peace on the Israeli side. And several Arab states had been trying even longer. As far back as 1971, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had endorsed a UN plan for peace and made overtures to Israel. But Israeli leaders would have none of it, until after the 1973 war.

All of the above and more is detailed in the 2011 book Israeli Rejectionism: A Hidden Agenda in the Middle East Peace Process (Pluto Press) by IJV Canada members and Israeli-Canadians Daphna Levit and Zalman Amit. The authors show conclusively that it was Israel’s Arab neighbours, not Israel, who consistently sought peace. And it was Israel (and its Western allies) who consistently rejected peace, or limited it so as to maintain Israel’s hegemony over the Palestinians and the region. Time and again the Israelis had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the peace table.

Israel finally made peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, but only after the very costly Yom Kippur War made it clear to Israel that it could not continue in isolation from its neighbours.

Despite peace with Egypt, Israel's continued maltreatment of the Palestinians led to the First Intifada, in 1987, which served as a wakeup call that the occupation was intolerable. The eventual result was the Oslo Accords, kickstarted by the PLO's full and official recognition of Israel in 1993. So the PLO has officially recognized Israel's right to exist for 22 years.

The Oslo Accords were sabotaged by Israel's continuing and relentless settlement-building and the Palestinians rose again in 2001. But even as the Second Intifada was raging, the Arab League made a another comprehensive peace proposal, receiving unanimous approval from all of Israel's neighbours (Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and others such as Saudi Arabia and the Emirates). The proposal was based on recognition of the Israeli state, normalization of relations between the entire Arab region and Israel in return for a complete withdrawal from the occupied territories and a just settlement of the refugee situation based on UN Resolution 194. This was re-endorsed by the Arab League in 2007.

Thus the old excuse for doing nothing -- that the Arabs refused to recognize Israel -- was gone. This precipitated a crisis for Israel. What they needed was a new excuse for avoiding a comprehensive peace agreement, something that would allow them to carry on the status quo, settlements and all.

So it is no coincidence that the very same year, 2007, that the Arab League re-endorsed the peace proposal, was the first time that recognition of Israel as a "Jewish State" emerged on Israel's agenda. Then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert raised it during a set of "peace talks" initiated by George W. Bush.  The Israelis had never made this demand of the Egyptians and the Jordanians when they signed the earlier peace treaties. And they never made the demand of the Palestinians in the negotiations leading to the Oslo Accords in 1993.

So why did the Israelis raise the issue so late in the game? 

It was a bold but desperate gambit. It was something whose importance the rest of the world, especially those not watching closely, might not understand. After all, wasn’t Israel at least in some respects a Jewish state? Wouldn’t those who rejected it sound like they had something against Jews?

At the same time, it was an offer that the Palestinians, indeed any self-respecting people, could never accept.  And the Israelis knew it. So the Israelis could announce the start of a new round of negotiations making a precondition that was a non-starter. Why?

First, it would eliminate ab initio, the right of return (which is a basic human right guaranteed for refugees under international law) or any negotiation around this subject. The Palestinians would have to forswear it, either as a substantive right or even as a key "bargaining chip" in negotiations over two states.

Second, if Israel is recognized as a Jewish state, then what would happen to the rights of the 20 per cent of its population who are Palestinians (a group with which most of the world is woefully unfamiliar)? These two million people are already third-class citizens. Recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" would doubtless unleash much more discrimination. More and more, Israel sees the growing call for political reform by its Palestinian citizens as a threat

Israeli politicians have called for the transfer of many Palestinians against their will to the Palestinian Authority, and nearly half of Jewish-Israelis favour this move (The same poll showed 59 per cent of Israeli Jews wanted preference for Jews in government jobs, 42 per cent would not live in the same building as their fellow citizens of Palestinian descent and a third wanted a law prohibiting these citizens from voting in Knesset elections). If Israel must be recognized as a "Jewish state" then what right does over 20 per cent of the population, the non-Jewish citizens, have to even live there? In fact, by insisting on the "Jewish state" descriptor, it effectively erases Palestinians from Israel. Now they are barely tolerated.

Third, precisely which Israel are we talking about here that has to be recognized as a "Jewish state"?  Is it Israel within the "Green Line" (1948 Armistice Borders)? Does it contain East Jerusalem (in which 230,000 Palestinians live in a state of suspended animation -- paying Israeli taxes but denied citizenship). Or does it contain the Israeli West Bank settlements which have been sequestered into Israel by the separation barrier (which includes 12 per cent of the West Bank land and a quarter-million Palestinians)?

The fundamental dilemma for Israel is that it would like to have, in the words of Israeli peace campaigner Jeff Halper, three irreconcilable things: a Jewish state, a democratic state, and a state that comprises as much of Eretz Yisrael ("The Land of Israel" from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea) as possible. Israel can have any two, but not all three. If it has as much as possible of Eretz Yisrael, the presence of a majority of Palestinians means it cannot be a Jewish state.  And it cannot be democratic unless it allows all of these Palestinians the vote, which it refuses to countenance.

Even the solution the whole world, as well as its Arab neighbours, seem to want is unacceptable to the current rulers of Israel. Two viable and contiguous states, one Jewish, the other Palestinian, based on the pre-1967 borders, would force Israel to abandon or remove the half-million Jewish settlers from the West Bank and leave most of East Jerusalem. And it would still leave Israel with two million increasingly restive Palestinian citizens waging a battle for fundamental civil rights.

Will the demand for a "Jewish state" succeed? If its right-wing politicians have their way, Israel may declare itself a Jewish state. But it is unlikely to succeed on both necessities to make it a reality. The Palestinians, both Israeli and those in the territories, will not accept it. And the world, increasingly impatient with the Israelis, will not likely be fooled. 

The U.S. Congress can recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but even Jews outside of Israel are increasingly seeing through Israeli intransigence. In the last round of "Peace Talks," a Pew Poll showed 48 per cent of Jewish Americans didn't think Israel was making a sincere attempt to make peace. Pointing to the future, American Jewish youth is even more disaffected. A quarter of those aged 18-29 think the U.S. is too supportive of Israel.

With Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in the last Israeli election, vowing never to tolerate a Palestinian state, and warning of the Palestinian citizens coming to vote "in droves," it is even clearer that Israel has no intention of providing even a modicum of justice to the Palestinians. And the demand for recognition of a Jewish state, is merely public relations.

Larry Haiven is a Steering Committee representative for Independent Jewish Voices' Halifax chapter.

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