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The Jewish State Question

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Jan. 6 (Bloomberg) -- As he struggles to bring Israelis and Palestinians closer on the four main issues that have long prevented a settlement of their conflict, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry now finds himself confronted with a fifth: Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lately been saying, must recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Given that Palestinian leaders have recognized Israel’s right to exist, as well as Netanyahu’s well-established resistance to making concessions, it’s fair to wonder whether he’s deliberately creating an obstacle to progress. At the same time, his rationale makes a certain amount of sense. If the Palestinians acknowledge that Jews have a legitimate claim in the land of Israel, won’t they be less likely, after a final accord is signed, to continue fighting for all of that land?

The flaw in this strategy, of course, is that simply saying something doesn’t make it true. There is a difference, especially in this context, between acknowledgment and acceptance. Netanyahu’s goal is both understandable and legitimate, but it is better pursued with a legal measure: a clause in a final peace agreement that will foreclose any claims on Israel.

It ought not to be a big deal for Palestinian leaders to acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish state. It was created on the basis of a 1947 United Nations resolution calling for the establishment of a “Jewish state” alongside an Arab one -- a proposition the Arab residents, not yet called Palestinians, rejected. Israel’s Independence Proclamation (it has no constitution) repeatedly refers to a Jewish state that guarantees equal rights to all inhabitants “irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Of Israel’s 7.7 million residents, 24 percent are non-Jews, the vast majority of them Arab.

The Palestinians say it isn’t their responsibility to define Israel, and they’re right. They’re also missing the point. For Netanyahu, the “Jewish state” issue is shorthand for the need, as he puts it, for Palestinians to abandon “their refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to have their national state.” That is a reference to the frequent Palestinian claim that Israel’s Jews are European interlopers, an alien presence on Arab land.

Such mythical thinking contributes to Israeli mistrust of Palestinian intentions -- as do statements, made by various Palestinian leaders over the years, that peace with Israel is by definition temporary. Some 29 percent of Palestinians support the militant Islamist group Hamas, which governs Gaza and is devoted to Israel’s destruction.

Needless to say, this makes Israelis nervous about giving up the last of the cards they hold in the negotiations -- concerning the four issues that until recently have defined the peace process: where to draw borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state, how to share Jerusalem, what to do about Palestinian refugees and how to balance Israel’s security with Palestine’s sovereignty.

As wise men have observed, however, you negotiate peace with the enemy you have. If Netanyahu wanted to encourage a stronger sense of security and trust among Palestinians, he could state outright that final-status talks will result in the creation of a Palestinian state, a concept he has only tepidly endorsed. He also could stop the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which greatly complicate the establishment of such a state and cause Palestinians to suspect Israel’s intentions.

In any event, if negotiations ever reach that far, Palestinians and Israelis can reassure each other with a clause in the final agreement providing that there will be no more claims by one on the other. And they can still find a way to separate into two states, the character of which will be defined not in a treaty but by their citizens and their laws.

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