There has been a lot of ruckus lately in the Israeli media about the idea of Jewish state. Well, not the idea of a Jewish state per se, but the debate over whether the PLO, specifically Abas, must recognize that in a two state solution, one state is comprised of a Jewish nation. Netanyahu said that in order for peace to be achieved, the Palestinian nation must recognize Israel as a Jewish state made of a Jewish nation. But… why is this pretext so incredibly important to Bibi, and is it so important?
I have been reading Netanyahu’s book “a Durable Peace”- revised and re-edited in 2000 (originally written in 1993 and called “A place among the nations”) and written for an English and American audience. In the book, Netanyahu firmly defends his conception of Zionism and the importance of a Jewish state for a Jewish nation. He writes about ancient Jewish attachment to the land of Israel, which prevailed through years and years of exile. The perpetual Jewish longing for Zion, is one of the basis for the justification that the Jewish nation lacks its state but meets the criteria for a nation that needs a state. Therefore, he explains the world leaders understood this idea when they met in Versailles to cut up the world into nation-states. The Jewish people were a nation, like any other nation, but lacked their own state. This was acknowledged in the writing of the Balfour declaration, which promised the Jewish people, who at this time, drunk with Zionist ideology were sewing the land of Palestine: their ancient land. Coupled with later history: the Holocaust and the exile of thousands of Arab Jews from Arab lands, the Jewish state become an even more important idea to Netanyahu. Therefore to see Israel in any other way (other than a Jewish state) would oppose its very legitimacy, according to Bibi.
In fact for so long Bibi even denied the legitimacy of the nation of Palestine. He claimed that any nationalism felt by Palestinians did not deserve a state- because that state was clearly already created- and called Jordan. If Jordan was carved out of the original Palestine by Britain (the same Palestine that was promised to the Jews in the Balfour declaration) than the area of the land, now Jordan (East of the Jordan river) should have the same significance to all Arabs as the land which is not the State of Israel (West of the Jordan river)
However, Netanyahu neglects to write about the effect of history on a people. Perhaps the peoples who lived in “greater Palestine” (Transjordan and Israel) 200 years ago felt nationalism towards all of this land (if even there was such a thing as nationalism in Arab lands 200 years ago…) but those Arabs who grew up under the creation of the Jewish state, and then occupation by the Jewish state- would feel different than those Arabs growing up in Jordan, and absorbed into their society. In short- Israel helped create their identity- and national longing for self-determination. (Whether that is expressed in radical, violent measures or moderate peaceful measures)
But what of it all in terms of a Jewish nation? To Netanyahu, being a nation legitimizes why Jews need/have a state. A nation has again and again been persecuted and lived under foreign rule is justified a state- and this sentiment has been recognized twice over by the world- once at Versailles (and Balfour declaration) and the second through the UN Vote in November 1947, partitioning the land, and granting the Jews a state, alone justifies Israel.
Abbas is obviously and justifiable so, hesitant to throw around this definition, “Jewish state” because, it denies national rights to the Arab population within Israel. It also denies them the feeling of complete statehood- as if this state can never be completely theirs. But in terms of negotiations, for Abbas to recognize the Jewish state, rejects the Palestinian concept of right of return to Israel- any number of return. It assumes that this right is illegitimate, because they are not Jews partaking in a Jewish state, despite any claim they might believe they have to the land.
But is it really important for us? If there is peace and if the land is split it signifies that both sides want to create peace with one another. It means that in some way that Abbas recognizes that we are some kind of people: shouldn’t this be enough? Are we so unsure of our own identity that we have to have our neighbors confirm it as well? We can’t just be happy as Israel, but must also be validated as Jewish Israel? How integral is this concept?
I’m beginning to see this idea as integral to Israel and its future survival. I know that I have and always will believe in Israel as a Jewish state for the Jewish nation, this to me is obvious. Yet if we don’t have the confirmation from outside, it delegitimizes the policies that Israel will enact in the future. Israel can never be as democratic as it wants to be as a Jewish state; in less it becomes a nation of all its peoples there will always be problems with its religious minorities. But those policies that it does enact to preserve and encourage its Jewish character will seem as racist and exclusive without understanding the beginnings and motivations of Zionism and the Jewish state. Israel can’t act alone in the world as if it is isolated within a bubble- it needs to act as though it is in a theater of other nations. It shouldn’t have to ask permission for every policy it enacts from the rest of the world, but something as significant as its definition as a state is something that the rest of the world- especially its partner in peace- needs to understand. However, at the same time, peace is something that is so important for the preservation of the Jewish state, that perhaps the recognition of the Jewish nation as a pretext to peace negotiations is not necessarily important. If peace is achieved, than this idea can eventually be pursued.