The Arabs, I am told, have a saying: “Everything starts small except calamity.” If you think about this aphorism for a minute, a sort of witty definitional wisdom comes through. The problem is that sometimes calamity starts small, too. Yesterday’s United Nations General assembly vote on making Palestine an observer–status state is a good example, most likely. But so is a now two and a half-year-old innovation in the so-called peace process milieu that came from the other, the Israeli side. I note this because even as the newsworthiness of the UNGA vote fades from the newspapers over the next few weeks, that other innovation is going to return to prime time along with the standard rhetorical pyrotechnics of the January 22 Israeli election.
But first things first—the UNGA vote.
As the Obama administration has said countless times both in private and public, this effort by the PA is unhelpful. It said so more than a year ago, and managed to delay the effort, and it said it more recently, as well. And it’s true: It is unhelpful, and the “peace process” really doesn’t need more disadvantages; if it has an abundance of anything, that’s it. (A particularly brilliant essay on the logical structure of the problem appeared in TAI a few years ago, written by a Duke University law professor not particularly known for comment on this subject. I still recommend it very highly.)
Ah, but so what? It isn’t as though some other route to a revived and successful peace process is in prospect, so the vote could easily be dismissed as a marginal tactical stunt. Besides, everybody knows that United Nations is not a place where problems get solved, but a place where either insoluble or trivial issues go to be talked to death by second-rate diplomats with nothing better to do.
This may turn out to be the case, but it’s not obvious that it will. There are at least three reasons to think that this episode will turn out to be more important and more harmful than that.
First, embedded in the resolution are statements about borders and the status of Jerusalem that represent maximalist Palestinian positions. In case you haven’t actually read the thing—a tedious, unpleasant but necessary undertaking, I’m afraid—it specifies the borders of Palestine as those of the West Bank and Gaza before the June 1967 war. It also designates East Jerusalem as the capital of this state. The first matter, about borders, might be considered an advance over typical historical Palestinian assertions that all of Palestine should constitute a Palestinian state. One might argue that, implicitly at least, this represents the PA’s formal accession to Israel’s right to exist in some borders—a big step forward. But in the current context it simply means that it will be harder for any future Palestinian leader to accept less than the United Nations resolution text has staked out. The same goes for Jerusalem. If these two issues are essentially taken off the table as items for discussion and compromise, it makes the ultimate prospect of a deal that much more remote.
Second, as has been widely discussed, Palestine’s observer status enables it to use the International Criminal Court and the functional agencies of the United Nations to continue its propaganda war against Israel. Indeed, more has been made of this matter in the mainstream press than of the time-bombs concerning borders and Jerusalem, but this is the sort of foolishness one has come to expect of the mainstream press. Some Palestinian spokesman, in private anyway, have given assurances—or tried to—to the United States and to the various European countries that have been the targets of Palestinian lobbying efforts that Palestinian officials would not pursue aggressive efforts to use the ICC in this way. Apparently, these assurances won the hearts of some European countries that voted for the resolution, but that had other reasons to do so, as well: bucking up the PA/PLO apparatus on the West Bank to compensate for the rising stature of Hamas in Gaza; appeasing their own Muslim voters; and, in some cases, fealty to their wildly unrealistic aspirations for international law and institutions.
Of course this misses the point. Even if these Palestinian spokesmen are sincere about their prospective moderation—and there is ample reason to doubt their sincerity—no one can guarantee what future Palestinian officials will think or do.
And that leads to the third point: The simplest way to interpret PA motives here is to conclude that it isn’t interested in a final peace settlement with Israel, but would rather pursue incremental tactical advances in a patient overall strategy aimed at first delegitimizing and ultimately destroying Israel.
This isn’t the only way to interpret Palestinian motives, of course. Some might say that this UNGA affair is simply an effort to gain leverage over Israel in eventual negotiations. That could be, for while Mahmud Abbas has been unwilling to negotiate directly in recent years, the Israeli government—arguably the most nationalist, rightwing government coalition in Israeli history—has certainly been a less than inviting partner. To some extent, the leverage argument has already been borne out. Just day or two before the vote, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that if the Palestinians would abort their UNGA effort, Israel would do such and so forth. This was, possibly, the stupidest thing that any Israeli Foreign Minister has ever done—essentially offering to pay the Palestinians for not doing something foolish in the first place, leading to likely further payments every time the PA threatened to do the deed.
But the real point here is that what the Palestinians have done is very likely to persuade ever more Israelis that they are not serious about peace. The Israeli political system has shown many times that the people are prepared to bring down a government and replace it with a more flexible one when a prospect of serious negotiation with any Arab partner is in prospect. Israel is a democracy certainly in the sense that every major decision point on matters of war and peace ultimately becomes a referendum. The Palestinians have to know that. That is why the most plausible interpretation of the motives behind what they have done has to be so pessimistic.
Of course there is a Palestinian body politic too, and careful polling over the years by Khalil Shikaki and others shows a nuanced picture of what Palestinians want and think they can obtain. It is not material for a simple-minded passion play, which is what most unreconstructed partisans insist the conflict is about. But there is a significant asymmetry here: The Palestinian body politic has not yet acquired either the habits of the heart or the institutions of genuine democracy, and that magnifies the importance of another asymmetry, which is that there are many fewer Palestinians willing to compromise for peace then there are Israelis. That in turn leaves the PA in a difficult situation. Abbas and Fayyad and Erekat and others in the leadership are more moderate than the population in general, and Hamas has made steady gains at their expense as a result. From the PA leadership’s point of view, there is no gain in conducting serious negotiations with Israel if it means that they will lose both their power and possibly their heads.
Thus, the decision to go ahead with the UNGA resolution vote doesn’t necessarily mean that the PA leadership isn’t genuinely moderate somewhere in its deepest private honesty, but it does mean that their moderation is politically hapless under current circumstances. Doesn’t that really just amount to the same thing? Well, yes and no. For current practical purposes, yes; for all future purposes, not necessarily. I continue to believe that one day, after both sides have gotten over their well-deserved and hard-earned historical neuroses, there will be peace. That is why rehearsing the logic and investing in the means to make peace is a worthy undertaking. But that day will not come soon.
There is, I suppose, a fourth reason why the UNGA vote might be consequential: The U.S. Government will have to react. After warning the PA countless times not to do this, and that there would be consequences if it went ahead anyway, we simply do not have an option of ignoring what has happened. Besides, if the Executive Branch doesn’t react fairly strongly, the Legislative Branch will force its hand.
The beginning of wisdom in a situation like this, from the diplomatic point of view, is that you want to slap the offending party hard enough so that no one mistakes it for a pat on the shoulder, lest everyone else in the region conclude that they can run rampant over American interests with no penalty in prospect. But you don’t want to slap so hard that you sever all prospect of future engagement. The reason is that influence is a by-product of engagement. Like most things in life, a balanced approach is best. But it isn’t easy to figure out the details of what that approach ought to be, and if you get it wrong, there can be many unpredictable downstream consequences.
Yes, you heard me right: Sometimes we get things wrong, and they have unpredictable downstream consequences. The best example explains why we have not had direct negotiations between the PA and Israel basically since the Obama Administration came into office. The reason is that the Obama Administration screwed up. By word and deed together it alienated and frightened the Israeli government, reducing its propensity to take risks in negotiations, and worse, by making demands on Israel (specifically concerning settlement activity in Jerusalem) that exceeded those made in recent years even by the Palestinians, they pushed Palestinian demands up a tall tree from which Abbas and company found it impossible to climb down. (Sounds a little like the terms of the UNGA resolution, doesn’t it?)
That’s how, back in 2009, the latest Israeli-Palestinian attempt at negotiating a solution to their conflict got derailed by U.S. diplomatic malpractice before it had an honest chance to fail of its own accord. But fail it would have, not least because in 2009 a major new issue was added to the agenda of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations (as if that agenda needed more challenge). Beyond the hearty perennials of borders, Jerusalem, refugees, water and security arrangements, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu asserted in a June 2009 speech that Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” was now an Israeli requirement for agreeing to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The reaction to Netanyahu’s assertion at the time was take-it-to-the-bank scale predictable. Most Israeli Jews and supporters of Israel worldwide applauded the innovation. Indeed, some claimed that its importance was so obviously crucial to any genuine settlement of the conflict that it was amazing that no previous Israeli government had ever raised it. Both Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, however, immediately rejected the new requirement, and most Palestinians, Arabs and their supporters cheered their so doing.
Palestinian Authority officials raised three explicit objections to Netanyahu’s demand: that it is not for Palestinians to determine the nature of the Israeli state; that Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would jeopardize the position of Israeli Arabs; and that if Israel did not demand recognition as a “Jewish state” in its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, why do so now, unless the purpose was to erect artificial barriers to serious negotiations. Later, in October 2010, when Netanyahu tried to link a Palestinian declaration acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state with a continuation of the settlements construction freeze, it only confirmed to many Palestinians that his demand was not as high-minded as he and his supporters claimed.
Of what does that putative high-mindedness consist? Many observers, particularly those sympathetic to Israel, cite a fourth, unstated Palestinian objection to Netanyahu’s demand: It shines a bright light on the real reason for the conflict in the first place; namely, Arab and Palestinian rejection of the right of Jews to self-determination, which presupposes the right to self-definition. According to this view, it’s not Israel that is raising a new demand in order to avoid serious negotiations; it’s doing so to make serious negotiations with the Palestinians possible really for the first time. Specifically, it addresses directly Palestinian rejection of the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism (Zionism), achieved through an insistence that a Jew is defined by religion, not nationality or ethnicity. (Never mind for now that sometimes the same people insist instead, when it suits the purposes of the moment, that Jews are an ethnic group, hence supposedly rendering Zionism by definition racist; and also never mind that this view contravenes that of Muslim prelates in the early centuries of Islam.)
The supposed religious as opposed to ethnic or national character of the Jews has led some Palestinians—some prominent ones, at that—to insist further that no Jewish historical connection to the land in question exists, for that is another way of denying anything remotely resembling national Jewish interests or rights there. Hence the bizarre claim by Yasir Arafat and others, contradicted by earlier centuries of Muslim historiography, that no Jewish Temple ever stood on what the Arabs call the Haram al-Sharaf, and the Jews call the Temple Mount.
It is precisely because of the Arab and Palestinian denial of the Jewish right to self-definition, many reason, that Netanyahu’s demand makes sense. If the Arabs accept Israel as a Jewish state, and acknowledge that state’s Jewish citizens’ historical ties to the Land of Israel, then it means they have finally made the psychological breakthrough that makes genuine peace possible. And if they do not, then best to know about it now, so that there will be no illusions about what the peace process, so-called, can and cannot achieve. This same basic logic, in different form given the different context, underlies proposals that Israeli Arab citizens (and, in some versions, all immigrants, too) should be subjected to a loyalty oath.
By this reasoning, then, Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish State becomes not only necessary, but central to ending the conflict. As was not the case in negotiations with Egypt or Jordan, Israelis and Palestinians have been locked in an existential conflict in which the assertion of one people’s national aspirations seemed ipso facto to negate those of the other people. Only when both sides recognize the legitimacy of the other’s national aspirations can there be peace. Israeli leaders long ago accepted the existence of a distinct Palestinian people and its right to a state—formally so as part of the September 1993 Oslo Accords. Now, goes the argument, it’s the turn of the Palestinians to reciprocate. Said Netanyahu to a conference on the future of the Jewish people on October 22, 2010, “Only when our peace partners are willing to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state will they truly be prepared to end the conflict and make a lasting peace with Israel.”
Some Israelis and supporters of Israel at large, however, hold another view of Netanyahu’s demand. It’s not that anyone who wishes Israel well disputes the desirability of a Palestinian declaration of the kind Netanyahu demands. Palestinian acceptance of Israel’s Jewishness, even if only declaratory and less than wholly sincere, would be a good thing according the maxim that hypocrisy is often the advanced wave of a new truth. But from a strategic perspective, some reason, Israel would gain little and possibly lose much by giving this demand a high priority, a danger further magnified should Israeli make it a sine qua non of a successful negotiation.
As Alan Dowty of Notre Dame University has insightfully explained, recognition of one state by another in traditional international diplomacy generally depends on the recognized state having effective authority within its borders and showing a willingness to abide by international commitments and rules. Sometimes the recognizing state can impose additional criteria regarding the internal arrangements of the state being recognized, as when the United States and some other countries recognized Kosovo as an independent state. But it is hard to think of any cases in which the state being recognized has imposed additional conditions on others, even as part of a peace agreement. In putting such an unprecedented condition at the top of its agenda, Israel should therefore expect to find little understanding or support in the international community.
More important, making a verbal formula so central to a negotiation does not really address Israel’s core security concerns. Hans Morgenthau used to advise giving up the shadow of worthless rights for the substance of real advantage; or, as Fiorello LaGuardia once summed up the matter, “Tickertape ain’t spaghetti.”
The logic here is manifest on other fronts that Israel has faced and still faces. Thus, the vulnerability of Sinai to Israeli reconquest reinforces Egypt’s observance of the March 1979 peace treaty; the terms of peace that have caused that vulnerability to persist are far more important to the maintenance of peace than anything any Egyptian official ever said in public, either during the long Mubarak period or since. Subtler but no less real for the absence of as contractual peace, Syria renews the UNEF mandate on the Golan Heights like clockwork every six months because it stands to lose more from not doing so, given Israel’s overwhelming military superiority. In any imaginable Israeli-Palestinian settlement, too, the concrete arrangements on the ground—demilitarization provisions, in particular; the placement of early-warning technologies in the Jordan Valley; and more besides—will be much more important to implementing and keeping the peace than any words extracted from the lips of the Palestinian leaders.
Morgenthau’s counsel still makes sense. Governments often make verbal commitments they have every intention of ignoring; what counts in a peace agreement are the concrete arrangements that give both sides an incentive to do what they have promised. Since Israel would have to give up something to get the Palestinians to say the magic words in the way the Netanyahu government insists on their being said, one has to wonder whether some other more concrete concession would not prove more valuable in a world where negotiating assets, and hence trading capital, are finite.
Beyond that, it is for any practical purpose pointless to contend with what others may believe in their heart of hearts, but one can ensure that they lack the means or opportunity to act on those beliefs. The acid test comes down to this: If the Palestinian Authority should come one day to grant all of Israel’s terms for an end-of-conflict peace accord except explicit recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state”, should the Israeli government of that day walk away from the deal? I would hope not.
There are, alas, two additional problems with the Prime Minister’s approach, one mainly legal and one fairly abstract, but not inconsequential for so being.
First the legal. Asking the Palestinian Authority to accept Israel as a Jewish state borders on asking its permission for Jews to be who most Jews say they are. Jews do not need permission from anyone to define themselves either as a people or as a nation, nor do they really need in so many words from the Palestinian Arabs what they already have from the (so-called) international community, namely, legal title to most, though not all, of Mandatory Palestine—final borders pending negotiations among the parties, of course, as stipulated by UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.
What the current Israeli government, or any Israeli government, can and must demand is that Palestinians recognize the legal status of the State of Israel in international law. That status is clear: Let us remember that when the UN General Assembly voted on the question 65 years ago, it voted on “the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.” If the Palestinians recognize Israel, therefore, it subsumes Israel’s status as a Jewish state. This, presumably, is why earlier Israeli governments, including one led by Netanyahu himself, did not insist on a Palestinian declaration of the sort that Netanyahu started to demand in 2010: It was understood that the legal framework that encompasses the conflict’s history and resolution glidepath presupposes such recognition.
To some extent, too, the Palestinians have already acknowledged that Israel is and will remain a Jewish state. Back in 1994, Yasir Arafat, during an interview with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, was asked if he understood that Israel had to remain a Jewish state, and he answered “definitely.” Earlier, in its 1988 Declaration of Independence, the PLO somewhat grudgingly recognized, but recognized all the same, the applicability of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947 which, its Declaration stated, “partitioned Palestine into two states, one Arab, one Jewish.”
This history of what we might call the sideswiping Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is what has led some Palestinian officials, like Mohammed Shtayyeh, to declare that “the issue of recognition is settled, it is done.” It has also led others to reason that Netanyahu’s demand that it now be explicitly repeated amounts to negotiating in bad faith, with the aim of either foiling the chances for agreement or of using the additional demand to get a deal more favorable to Israel. And, taken together with the aforementioned practical matter of what Israel might have to trade to get its wish, this is what led some Israeli officials, including Labor Party Defense Minister Ehud Barak, to distance themselves from the Prime Minister’s position. “Of course we are a Jewish state,” Barak said at the time, “but we have to make sure we do not get on a slippery slope where our justifiable demands become prohibitive obstacles” to a deal.
Second the more abstract problem. To ask for a Palestinian intellectual consensus on Israel as a “Jewish state” begs an esoteric point in the philosophy of Jewish history, and that is really asking too much. It is asking too much because, even if they do not like to admit it in mixed company, Jews themselves do not agree fully on what the phrase “Jewish state” actually means.
There are at least three ways to mean the adjective “Jewish” as attached to the noun “state”: Jewish as an ethnic description, Jewish as a religious (in the narrow Western definition) description, and Jewish as a cultural description that includes part of both. These correspond to Jews as a nation, as a faith community, and as a people. These definitions can and do overlap in practice, which is to say that they are conveniently muddled to cover over their mutual incompatibility.
One can get a sense of this incompatibility by referring to the history of Zionism, which has never entirely come to terms with this definitional ambiguity. In its original essence, political Zionism—the Zionism of Theodore Herzl and especially that of the secular socialists who assumed the movement’s leadership after his death in 1904—is a form of nationalism. Jews are defined as a nation qua ethnic group, in perfectly acceptable late-19th century parlance. But that never quite worked for all purposes at hand, not least because conversion into Judaism as a faith community over the centuries had by then created a Jewish population that significantly transcended an ethnic group, or “nation”, as such. Hence the far more common use of the more expansive cultural term “Jewish people”, a rabbinically endorsed concept from a very long time ago meant to describe all those who throw in their lot together as Jews.
Broader than nation and less restrictive than faith community, peoplehood remains the most historically accurate and inclusive way to define Jews today, but it is a definition that does not satisfy all Jews. Some insist that faith has nothing to do with Jewishness; others insist that nationality has nothing to do with it. Both points of view are represented in Israel today by Israeli citizens. Outside of Israel, too, there are Jews who have Jewish ancestry but no interest in a faith community as well as those joined to the faith community who lack Jewish ancestry. There are both secular and religious Jews who are Zionist and secular and religious Jews who are not Zionist (if not to say anti-Zionist). Today one can thus affirm Jewish peoplehood “ni Moises, ni Herzl”, to paraphrase a well-known French locution by Jean-Francoise Revel that had originally to do with Jesus and Marx, and one can deny “peoplehood” by affirming exclusive reliance on ethnicity or religious belief.
One therefore shudders to think what might happen if the Palestinian leadership were shrewd enough to respond to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s request with a question: “What exactly do you mean by ‘Jewish state’?” One Arab citizen of Israel, at least, has come close to doing so: Mohammed Darwishe, the co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, pointed to the loyalty oath proposal mooted back in 2010 by current Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the Israel Betaynu Party and asked, “The Jewish State is what? A Lieberman state?”
In due course, a more general formulation of that question could turn out to be far more trouble to answer than it’s worth. After all, disaster has befallen the Jewish people in the past, one could plausibly argue, not principally because of what its enemies were able to do, but because of radical dissension within its own ranks. Netanyahu’s innovation, for all of its well-intentioned purposes, could in due course unleash demons the Jewish people can well do without. Calamity, in other words. Isn’t that just like politics, though—that domain of human affairs whose sole purpose for being, I sometimes think, is to prove the law of unintended consequences?