Even before the first round of direct peace talks began in the renewed diplomatic process, a serious dispute emerged regarding the agenda of the Israeli-Palestinian discussions that threatens the future of this process. While as in the past the Palestinians continued to demand that the division of territory head the list of issues for discussion, Netanyahu has deviated from the outline presented by Israel in previous rounds of negotiations and demanded that the talks start with agreements on security arrangements and recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.
This demand reflects a substantive change in Israel’s agenda, with the addition of a fifth core issue – recognition – to the four main topics on the negotiations agenda: borders and settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, and security.
This is not the first time that Netanyahu put forth the demand to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people as one of two essential pillars for a final status agreement with the Palestinians. He made this demand in his June 2009 speech at BarIlanUniversity, in his July 8, 2010 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and in his formal greetings to the public on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5771. In a conversation with Mahmoud Abbas several days before the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, in which he extended his best wishes for the Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr, the prime minister reiterated his conviction that the issue of recognition is the “most significant obstacle to peace remaining.” In the same conversation Netanyahu stated: “If we can get over the issue of mutual recognition, I hope that next year we will be able to congratulate one another on achieving an agreement for peace.” This is surprising, considering the wide gaps between the two sides’ positions on the other core issues.
Netanyahu is not the first leader to include the issue of recognition in the Arab-Israeli peace process, but his policy signals a culmination of two changes that have evolved in Israel’s policy on the issue in the past decade: one is taking the substance of the recognition demand to a new level, and the other, the importance attributed to this issue in the hierarchy of topics for negotiation. The issue of recognition was included in peace agreements between Israel and Egypt and Jordan, and was even in the Declaration of Principles in the Oslo process. However, in these three precedents Israel made do with a declaration worded in familiar international arena terms, recognizing the sovereign existence of the partners in the agreements and their right to continue to exist with security and peace within their agreed-upon borders. The sign of a change in Israel’s policy on this subject first appeared in 2003, when in the framework of the Sharon government’s response to the Roadmap presented by the Bush administration, Israel demanded Palestinian recognition not just of its right to exist but also of the national rights on which it was founded and its national character, or in other words, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. In the Annapolis talks in 2007, Olmert and Livni demanded that a statement in that spirit be included in the declaration that opened the talks. Nevertheless, Netanyahu is the first to present it as a necessary condition for negotiations.
The importance Netanyahu attributes to the recognition issue in the diplomatic process derives from its implications for the realization of Israel’s interests on all the other core issues. First, he believes that formal recognition by the Palestinians of Israel’s Jewish character will bring an end to the threats latent in the demand for the right of return, and in the potential for future demands for autonomous separation by Israel’s Arab minority. Second, Palestinian recognition of the Zionist narrative can be seen as the key to easing the difficulty in compromising on both other core issues: sovereignty over the territories of Judea and Samaria, and the question of Jerusalem. As far as the ideological right is concerned, the total opposition to compromise on these issues stems from the belief that these issues are critical expressions of the justification of the right of the Jewish people to its historic homeland. From this perspective, a declaration of commitment to this national right by all the actors in the conflict broadcasts that willingness to negotiate on the tangible assets does not reflect a concession on the essential value they represent, and even reinforces it.
Nevertheless, the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is liable to constitute a decisive obstacle to the continuation of the peace process. This is true because at this stage of the process, the Palestinians cannot allow themselves to accept this demand, which threatens their chief goals in the negotiations and reflects a concession on the narrative that has driven their national struggle for decades: that the establishment of a state for the Jews created an injustice for the Palestinian people.
Furthermore, adding the recognition clause to the negotiating agenda opens a new level of discussions – on historic identities, justice, and injustices. This is a change in direction that is contrary to the policy Israel has followed since the beginning of the Oslo process, a policy that exerted tremendous pressure to dictate a future-directed agenda that focuses on the current interests of both sides and avoids addressing the injustices of the past. This was done based on the knowledge that this type of negotiation will force Israel to confront Palestinian demands that challenge the legitimacy of its very existence and the way it was established. The consequences of this new dimension must be taken into account when the decision is made to include the issue of recognition in the talks.
Because there are complex ramifications to the demand to recognize Israel as the Jewish nation state as part of the diplomatic process, it is important to prepare for it fully. A professional staff can be established to study precedents of this type of demand from other parts of the world, and can help define Israel’s red lines on this issue. This staff will be required to use creative thinking about the wording of the declaration that is demanded, with the goal of outlining a formula that can be accepted by the Palestinians and will not imply a negation of their rights. In addition, it will likely be difficult to reach an agreement on this weighty issue without appropriate compensation. Therefore, it is worth considering including the recognition clause as part of a tradeoff on other key issues that will justify a concession on this clause. Such a package deal has another advantage, because agreements on the core issues connected to the declaration of recognition – issues of refugees and the Palestinians who are Israeli citizens – can be included in it, and these agreements would provide a response to both sides’ fears of the ramifications of a symbolic declaration on the nature of a permanent settlement of these issues.
Finally, it is worth considering another alternative common in conflict resolution processes elsewhere in the world, whereby steps toward reconciliation, including a process of mutual recognition of the historical narratives of the adversaries, are implemented only after formal peace agreements are signed that resolve the concrete issues in dispute and create an initial basis of trust between the sides. Perhaps thus from Israel’s point of view, the most effective way to achieve the ideological goals latent in the demand for recognition of Israel’s Jewish character would be to postpone the discussion of this issue to the stage of reconciliation, which would be defined as the next binding stage after the signing of the permanent agreement and before its full implementation.
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