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A Recognition Israel Doesn’t Need

By: Yonatan Touval, senior policy analyst with the Geneva Initiative, New York Times Op-Ed

Date: 13.05.2009

TEL AVIV — Here is a statement you will not hear today from Jerusalem: “I wish to declare that the government of Israel will not ask any nation, be it near or far, mighty or small, to recognize our right to exist.”

But it is a statement that was made in June 1977 by then-prime minister Menachem Begin. A sentimental nationalist of the highest order, Begin was nevertheless able to identify the only kind of recognition that Israel should require: “I re-emphasize that we do not expect anyone to request, on our behalf, that our right to exist in the land of our fathers, be recognized. It is a different recognition which is required between us and our neighbors: recognition of sovereignty and of the mutual need for a life of peace and understanding.”

A generation later, successive Israeli leaders have ignored Begin’s instruction and demanded, first, that the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist (which the P.L.O. did, in 1993) and, more recently, that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Yet, while the demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist was unique (after all, it is non-states that customarily seek such recognition from already existing states), the more recent demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state is dangerous. It must be resisted by those who care about Israel’s long-term strategic interests.

Israel’s leaders had never sought such recognition from any party, friend or foe. The 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, which Begin signed, only expresses mutual recognition of the “sovereignty,” “integrity” and “political independence” of both parties. The peace treaty with Jordan that Yitzhak Rabin concluded in 1994 uses the same language. No mention of Israel’s Jewishness appears in either treaty.

In fact, it was only on the eve of the Annapolis conference in November 2007 that then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert first trotted out the Jewish card, conditioning his participation on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Fortunately, the international community did not respond and Olmert abandoned his demand.

Now that the demand has been revived by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu it is important to understand what is at stake.

First, it is a hindrance to negotiations for the simple reason that the Palestinians won’t accept it. No sooner did Netanyahu make his demand than Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rejected it, saying: “Name yourself the Hebrew Socialist Republic — it is none of my business.”

And Abbas is right, for Israel’s demand concerns the national, cultural and religious dimensions of the country’s own Jewish identity. To ask the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is to confuse the realm of international relations with that of Israel’s internal self-fashioning.

Worse, it is to demand a form of recognition whose implications are far from certain, not least to Israelis themselves. After all, the meaning of Israel’s Jewishness is hotly contested within Israel itself, where the nature of the country’s matrimonial law, regulations regarding the Sabbath, or the inclusion of religious material in school curricula, continue to be debated in Israel’s courts, Parliament and public life. Meanwhile, the success of the right-wing nationalist Avigdor Lieberman in the last elections hinged on his ability to exploit the public’s lack of self-confidence about Israel’s Jewish character vis-à-vis its Palestinian Arab minority.

For Israel to require Palestinian pronouncement on a matter unresolved within Israel is absurd. For the Palestinians to make any pronouncement whose full implications would be potentially harmful to Israel’s Palestinian Arab minority would be foolhardy.

The ambiguity of the demand is highlighted by the fact that the variations on Israel’s requirements for recognition now add up to three. The other two are recognition of Israel’s right to exist and formal recognition of Israel as a state. The very discrepancy in the demands suggests either that Israel has not decided what is important or — what seems to be the case — that it keeps raising the ante in order to block any dialogue whatsoever.

Israel has every right to define itself as a Jewish state — as it does in its declaration of independence. It is not unusual for a state to define itself in national-religious terms; the constitutions of many countries are couched in ethnic and religious language.

But if Israel seeks peace, it must not demand that the Palestinians recognize its Jewish character. This is not only an unnecessary obstacle, it is deeply harmful to Israel’s own sense of being. After all, you don’t need to be a student of philosophy to know that once you subject yourself to the recognition of the other, you let the other define who you are.

Yonatan Touval is a senior policy analyst with the Geneva Initiative, an Israeli nonprofit organization which seeks to advance a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.