JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” and “the national home of the Jewish people” is an unnecessary diplomatic maneuver that sabotages the U.S.-backed peace process.
It evidently is meant to deny the so-called “right of return” revered by the Palestinians as their rationale for the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees who fled parts of pre-1948 Palestine that have been Israeli territory ever since. The demographic impact of such a huge population transfer would be a sharp reduction of Israel’s Jewish majority and it’s inevitable elimination.
Presumably, Netanyahu’s motive for demanding Jewish state recognition conforms to a political consensus that crosses party lines from right to left and is outside the parameters of public debate, namely opposition to the resettlement of the 1948 refugees in post-bellum Israel.
In shrugging off the issue of Israel’s Jewish identity as a non-starter and a political fact that is taken for granted worldwide except by the Islamic Republic of Iran, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel can define herself however she may wish and that his consent or approval are irrelevant.
This is tantamount to saying that the United States does not need any foreign power to confirm its status as a democracy whose government is elected freely by its citizens any more than the United Kingdom needs international verification of its status as a constitutional monarchy.
The United Nations General Assembly voted on Nov. 29, 1947, to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and Israel is the offspring of that historic resolution. Israel’s Declaration of Independence specifically describes her as a Jewish state and cites the Jewish people’s millennia-long ties to the land of Israel, i.e. Palestine. These documents, not the rhetoric of a transient political leader, define Israel’s Jewish identity for all time.
Abbas and his followers within the Palestine Liberation Organization tacitly accept this and are willing to negotiate with Israel as such. Only the Islamic extremist Hamas organization, which seized control of the Gaza Strip and refuses to recognize Israel or join the Middle East peace process, thinks otherwise. Its self-proclaimed prime minister, Ismail Hanniye, had the audacity to declare last week that the Jews have no legitimate or historical connection to Palestine and never had one.
Assuming that Netanyahu’s objective in insisting that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as a Jewish state was to rule out the right of return, it already has and still may impede the American effort to achieve a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict even if all the other obstacles are overcome. These include Israel’s termination of the 10-month moratorium on housing construction in the West Bank’s Jewish settlements, her refusal to withdraw to the armistice line of 1949 and her determination to retain all of Jerusalem, including the city’s pre-1948 Jordanian sector.
Earlier this month, we learned that Palestinian negotiators pleaded the refugees’ case during former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s abortive attempt to reach an agreement with them. Olmert reveals in a soon-to-be-published autobiography that he offered to admit 20,000 refugees in the context of a peace agreement — a move that could have been defended by him as an act of good will meant to facilitate the reunification of Palestinian families (Israel instituted such a policy shortly after the 1948-49 war when more 100,000 refugees were allowed to return).
In the long run, partial repatriation of Palestine’s Arab refugees could figure into a deal in accordance with which the Palestinian Authority would allow Jews who have religious or Zionist reasons for wishing to live in what they call Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) if Israel admitted an agreed number of refugees over a specified period of time.
This could be done on the basis of a pre-determined ratio: an agreed number of settlers for an agreed number of refugees.
Like it or not, the right of return has become part of the Palestinians’ national credo. Palestinian children who enter the first grade of elementary school are given giant keys, which are intended to symbolize their common national goal — to unlock the doors of their families’ pre-1948 homes.
In short, the right of return issue cannot be defused and eventually scuttled through arcane diplomacy. It can be mollified by tactful measures designed to convince the Palestinians that Israel’s Jewish majority understands the nostalgia and disappointment that plague the refugees and their descendants (which most Israelis do not), but cannot be expected to turn the clock back 63 years to please them.
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at Jay@actcom.co.il.)