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Dear Mahmoud Abbas: Why Not Recognize Israel as a Jewish State?

A letter to the president of the Palestinian Authority about peace, love, and self-determination

Liel Leibovitz
January 09, 2014
A Palestinian man climbs on a large poster depicting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and marking the 49th anniversary of the founding of Fatah movement during a rally in Nablus, Jan. 2, 2014.(Nasser Ishtayeh/AP)
A Palestinian man climbs on a large poster depicting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and marking the 49th anniversary of the founding of Fatah movement during a rally in Nablus, Jan. 2, 2014.(Nasser Ishtayeh/AP)

The following is intended primarily for the attention of Tablet reader Mahmoud Abbas. We ask for our other readers’ indulgence as we take a moment to address a few minor issues such as the right to self-determination.

Dear Mahmoud (I hope you don’t mind the informality, but honorifics never really seem right in our part of the world),

To believe the press reports, it’s been a rough couple of weeks for you. I mean, here you are, as close as you’ve been in recent memory to achieving a major breakthrough in your negotiations with Israel, and yet this one strange sticking point seems to be in the way: your frenemy Bibi’s insistence that you recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Now, I’m not ashamed to admit that I used to find this demand laughable. Israel, I used to think, was a sovereign nation, and the whole point of sovereign nations was that they got to define themselves by themselves, and, a few obtuse examples notwithstanding, most Israelis seemed comfortable with the complex, imperfect, yet utterly workable possibility of a robust democracy with a strong and immovable Jewish core. We didn’t need you, Mahmoud, to tell us that it was OK for us to be Jewish, and we still don’t. But that, as I’ve come to realize lately, isn’t really what Bibi’s demand is about.

Because negotiations can be complicated enough—to say nothing of those involving John Kerry—permit me a brief attempt at clarification.

Let us, for the sake of argument, go ahead and assume that the holy dove flutters her wings, the clouds of sorrow are all lifted, a treaty is signed, angels sing, and peace descends on the Middle East. Here is what that would mean: It would mean, de facto, two Palestinian states, Palestine West and Palestine South, one governed by you and the other by Hamas, and neither, by your avowal, admitting any Jews. And it would mean a third state, Israel, grappling to balance its own needs and aspirations with the often discordant ones of 20 percent of its own population, namely its Arab citizens.

From a strictly rational viewpoint, there are only three scenarios that stand alone as internally logical solutions to this state of affairs.

The first is the good, old quid pro quo: no Jews in Palestine, no Palestinians in the Jewish state. It’s simple enough, had it not involved the forced transfer of something like 1.6 million Israeli Arabs and hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers from their homes. (It’s true that some of Bibi’s bosom buddies are entertaining radical ideas, but these involve agreed-upon land swaps, won’t really solve the problem, and aren’t being seriously considered, as far as anyone can tell.)

Which leads us to the second option, which I’ll call the Kumbaya Gambit. If Israel can accommodate a significant Palestinian minority and grant them, with very few exceptions, all the rights and responsibilities Jewish Israeli citizens enjoy, the nascent Palestine, or Palestines, ought to do the same. If you want to win a few points with skeptical Israelis and Americans, a quick statement saying that the Jews currently living in the West Bank are welcome to stay put should they choose to become citizens of a soon-to-be-born Palestinian state would go a long way. It’s the kind of hopey changey thing we all really love.

But that’s not going to happen. Palestine will not welcome Jews. I actually understand this. You’ve led a decades-long struggle for self-determination, and when it’s all over, when it’s finally won, what you want is a pure expression of Palestinian nationhood.

Which only leaves us with option number three: recognize Israel as a Jewish state. If you don’t, what you’re telling Bibi—and the world—is that you’ve really no commitment to truly ending this conflict.

Let me be blunt: When parsing your refusal to meet Bibi’s demand—and I’m going here on things that you and your spokespeople have said over the years—I can discern two principal arguments, neither of them very good. The first is that if Future Palestine recognized Israel as a Jewish state, it would somehow be undermining the rights of the Palestinians in Israel. That is fatuous, as Israel’s Arab population will continue to enjoy the same rights after the agreement as it did before. The second argument is historical: Israel, your senior leadership has repeatedly claimed, didn’t ask either Egypt or Jordan to recognize it as Jewish; why, then, the Palestinians?

There’s a simple answer to the question, and it cuts to the heart of what’s really at stake here. The answer is that Israel’s conflicts with Egypt and Jordan were strategic and territorial by nature and could therefore be resolved with simple land swaps and promises to end all armed hostilities. It’s more complicated with you. Your negotiations with Israel aren’t about two states simply striving to maintain a quiet, agreed-upon border. They’re about two peoples seeking self-determination, each in its own sovereign state, each recognized by the other.

When you refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, then, what you’re really saying is that there’s really no reason for the conflict to end. If you don’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state, what you’re implying is that you see Jews not as a nation with a right to sovereignty in its ancestral homeland but as something else, a religious minority that, unlike the Palestinians, has no particular claim to self-determination. Which, in turn, means that you see no other end for Israel except one that empties the state of all its Jewish characteristics and relegates the Jews to the status of just one ethnic and religious group among the few that occupy the space west of the Green Line. And given what you’ve repeatedly said about not tolerating Jews in a future Palestine, there’s little reason to believe you’ll tolerate them in a future Israel as well.

This, Mahmoud, is why this recognition business is so important. And it grows more important still, given the fact that what we see when we otherwise look at you isn’t very promising: Last week, for example, you cheerfully welcomed the return of Palestinian prisoners released by Israel as a gesture of good will. Not once in the course of your speech did you mention the peace talks, even though it was partly as a result of the negotiations that the men you were embracing had been released. Nor did you seem to mind the fact that the released convicts you celebrated weren’t military commanders who fought off an occupying army but terrorists who had brutally stabbed a mother of seven walking down the street in Holon or shot a man as he was strolling with his wife in Jerusalem.

It’s not too late, thankfully, to change all that. The hour still calls—as it has called for so long now—for a Palestinian leader who can rise to the occasion and shepherd this conflict to its end. As imperfect as Israel’s four or five previous prime ministers have been—and their flaws oughtn’t to be ignored or underplayed—they have all signaled, often in deed, that they were committed to resolution. They withdrew from Gaza and eased economic restrictions and set convicted murderers free to the chagrin of the victims’ families. You don’t have to do anything quite so painful or far-reaching. All you have to do is recognize Israel as a Jewish state and say what you’ve demanded of Bibi all along: that when you imagine the future of Israel and Palestine what you’re seeing is two states, two peoples, each enjoying the right to self-determination, each enjoying sovereignty, each enjoying lasting peace.


L. Leibovitz


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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