Unlike Israel's unilateral insistence on the 'Jewish state', Israeli and Palestinian leaders need to find a recognition formula that reconciles two opposing national narratives.
By now everyone has realized that there’s a new issue on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations agenda that’s not going away: The demand that the Palestinians not only recognize Israel - something they have done repeatedly, starting in 1993 - but that they recognize Israel as "a Jewish state," or some similar wording. No such “recognition-plus” demand was made of Egypt or Jordan, nor was it mentioned in the Oslo agreement or subsequent Israeli-Palestinian documents. It made a brief appearance in the Annapolis talks of 2007, but only as a marginal issue. Only In 2009 did it truly come into play, courtesy of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s decision to introduce the issue into the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating dynamic seemed to be a cynical one. He was faced with a U.S. president determined to forge ahead with peace and a Palestinian president who embraced the two-state solution, rejected violence, and was actively cooperating to fight terrorism. This left Netanyahu scrambling for a pretext to argue that Israel had no Palestinian partner for peace, as cover for his own anti-peace, pro-settlement policies. Thus was born the “recognition-plus” demand, which today is accepted by many Israelis and supporters of Israel as a condition for any peace agreement, and even as a precondition for continuing to sit at the negotiating table with the Palestinians.
Israeli insistence that the Palestinians adopt this specific formula of recognition has already been proven to be an obstacle to peace. It is seen by many Palestinians as effectively requiring them to renounce their national narrative and accept the delegitimization of their own history, suffering, and grievances. It is viewed as asking them to recognize, in essence, prior Jewish claims that erase their own rights, both in terms of lands lost and as refugees. Moreover, this demand is seen by many – on both sides of the Green Line – as requiring Palestinian President Abbas to “sell out” the more than one million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, sabotaging their own efforts to break down the barriers to equality inside Israel.
And nobody should forget: The latter Israelis – 20% of the total population of Israel – may play a pivotal role in ensuring the passage of a referendum on a future peace agreement.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that this controversy brings to the fore a critical issue that was going to come up eventually: The need to reconcile irreconcilable national narratives. This issue will be at the core not only of resolving the Palestinian refugee issue, but of agreeing on any meaningful articulation of an end-of-conflict, end-of-claims commitment. Herein lies the opportunity.
For many Israelis, the “recognition-plus" demand has taken root not because they are looking for an excuse not to make peace, but, at least in part, because it taps into their longing to not simply be tolerated in the Middle East, but to be embraced, in the region and the world, as a legitimate, indigenous nation, consistent with Israel’s founding Zionist narrative of the return of the Jews to their historic homeland.
For many Palestinians, rejection of the "recognition-plus" demand is a function of their own narrative. It is the narrative of an indigenous people living for generations in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, only to be expelled or occupied as the result of the creation of Israel and subsequent disastrous wars.
In short, the demand and its rejection go to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They embody the shared desire of Israelis and Palestinians for self-determination in their own countries, and for acknowledgment of their core narratives.
Recognizing what this argument is really about opens the door for people on both sides of the conflict – and on both sides of the Green Line – to start grappling with this critical issue and with the challenge of finding a recognition formula that addresses the needs, and respects the sensitivities, of both sides. For Israelis, such a formula will require not just recognition of the fact of Israel’s existence, but some element of recognition of Israel as a home for the Jewish people in their historic homeland. For Palestinians, such a formula will require not just grudging acceptance of a Palestinian state as the outcome of negotiations, but some element of recognition of the suffering and sacrifices that Israel’s creation and 46 years of occupation have wrought on the Palestinian people.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders, negotiating in good faith to achieve a two-state solution, can certainly agree on a recognition formula – as was done by negotiators in the Geneva Initiative. Conversely, if Israel and Palestinian leaders don’t start dealing with this question seriously – respectful of the nuances and sensitivities involved for both sides – then the recognition question will haunt us all, and ensure that an agreement is likely never reached.
This article first appeared in Haaretz on March 30, 2014.