A recipe for resentment
For Palestinians, to recognise Israel as a Jewish state would be to repudiate their history.
The Obama administration is gearing up for its impending and possibly decisive moves towards relaunching the Middle East peace process, with a series of consultations with Arab leaders, including the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, later this week. After meeting with Barack Obama in Washington last week, the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, pressed his demand that the Palestinians should recognise Israel as a Jewish state, posing it as the sine qua non for any future agreement. This demand seems to be gaining some traction in the US and in western capitals.
But Washington and the international community should be very wary of progressing any further down this path; for behind what may appear an innocuous demand to accept Israel for what it deems itself to be lies an ideologically motivated attempt to force the Palestinians into an unprecedented repudiation of their history. Palestinians' recognition of Israel as a Jewish state implies the acknowledgment that the lands they lost in 1948 are a Jewish birthright. This runs contrary to the heart of the Palestinians' historical narrative and their sense of identity and belonging.
It invalidates the history of the Palestinians' century-old struggle and in effect demands that they should become Zionists; for the essence of Zionism lies in the belief that these lands are (and always were) the homeland of the Jewish people, and that the history of Jewish dispossession was rightfully rectified by the emergence of Israel in 1948.
Despite their current split, the majority of Palestinians – including Hamas – have accepted the political reality of Israel. The Palestine Liberation Organisation has gone further in acknowledging Israel's right to live in peace within secure borders. The PLO has also accepted that the loss of 77% of the Palestinians' historic homeland within Israel's pre-1967 borders cannot be reversed by force. Even Hamas has indicated that it can accept long-term peaceful coexistence with Israel if it withdraws from the territories that it occupied in 1967.
Accepting the notion of Palestinian-Israeli coexistence and an end to violence is one thing. Acknowledging Israel's historic and moral claim to what were once Palestinian Arab lands is another thing altogether.
But there is more to this Israeli demand. The underlying purpose is to preempt the Palestinians who were driven into exile in 1948 from continuing to claim the "right of return" to their lost lands and properties. But the Palestinian desire to "return" is not about undoing Israel's Jewish character. It is lodged in the sense of a broader historical injustice that is in need of acknowledgement, restitution and compensation.
The Palestinian leadership is aware that Israel cannot be compelled to take back any refugees against its will, and that any resolution of the refugee problem will have to be negotiated and agreed by mutual consent.
The fact is that the demand to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state is meant less to block the prospects of being swamped by Arabs – as Israeli propagandists claim – and more as a covert attempt to wrest Palestinian absolution for Israel's "original sin" in taking over their homeland.
There is another vital matter relating to Israel's Arab citizens – currently about 20% of its population. Acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state would undermine their status and jeopardise their very presence, especially in light of the rise of ultra-right parties that are already seeking to deny the country's Arab citizens their most basic civic rights.
The Palestinian leadership has made it clear that it will not accede to Israel's demand. But even in the unlikely event that it eventually succumbs to Israeli pressure and misguided western arm-twisting, this would remain an insincere and disingenuous concession. It would weaken and subvert the existing Palestinian order and create new and dangerous splits within it.
Far from being a prerequisite for peace and coexistence, this is an unnecessary and dangerous diversion – and a recipe for deep future resentment, revanchism and renewed conflict.
Israel must think again about whether there is any real utility – besides disruption and delay – in pressing this issue. The west must steer well clear of adopting this ideologically loaded formula, or seek to impose it on an already weakened and divided Palestinian polity, or to add to the burdens of the already tenuous and very uncertain prospects for peace.