By: Fadi Elhusseini
While analyses have abounded examining the details of the “secret” talks and evaluating the positions of the negotiating parties in the Middle East peace process, prominent Israeli writers have intensified their efforts, on “Israel’s imminent existential threat” with much fanfare.
Despite the fact that such writers are not officially members of the Israeli government, and their articles seem far apart, their works are in line and consistent with the official position of the Israeli government, which have added the recognition of Israel as a Jewish State as a sine qua non requirement to resolving the conflict.
Those writers highlighted the existential threat to the Jewish identity on not only the State of Israel, but also Jerusalem, calling on the Israeli government in the meantime to embrace policies and measures to preserve this identity and sustain the Jewish majority.
In his article “Making the Jewish State a ‘Jewish State’”, Lahav Harkov tries to draw attention to the importance of passing bills and instituting policies that ensure the Jewish uniqueness of Israel. However, Harkov concedes that it is difficult to do so and be democratic, especially with the presence of Muslim and Christian Arab Israeli citizens comprising nearly 20% of the population.
Similarly, writing in Al-Monitor in September 2013, Einat Wilf discusses the Israeli domestic debate on how the State of Israel cannot reconcile the term “Jewish” with the term “democratic”. Better still, Michael B. Oren wrote four years ago in Commentary magazine: “Israel will have to decide between being a Jewish state and a democratic state. If it chooses democracy, then Israel as a Jewish state will cease to exist.”
Oren suggests seven “existential threats”, identifying Arab demographics as one of the threats facing the existence of Israel. When talking about Jerusalem, Oren warns that Israel is in danger of losing Jerusalem as it no longer boasts a “Zionist majority”. Oren utilises statistics to prove his argument, which is both erroneous and misleading.
First and foremost, he uses the term “Zionist majority”, and not “Jewish” or “Israeli”. In fact, there is an obvious difference between those terms, especially when put in the context of the Middle East conflict. Second, Oren said: “Out of a total population of 800,000, there are 272,000 Arabs and 200,000 Haredim–ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not generally identify with the Zionist state.” Here, Oren classifies Haredim with Arabs, but if he classifies just Arabs (Christians and Muslims) alone compared to the total sum of resident Jews in Jerusalem, his own numbers would refute his argument. I tend to see Oren’s “existential threats” as nothing but challenges facing Israel’s role in the region, rather than threats facing its existence.
Despite some reservations, one of the most rational articles was written by Alon Ben-Meir, titled “The Jewish State of Israel.” In his turn, Ben-Meir highlights the demographic threat, yet he proposes a number of objective solutions, including the urgency of resolving the conflict with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution.
According to him, such a solution would remove Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip from the demographic equation that Israel faces and would end the occupation and the expansion of settlements, as this “runs contrary to the need to establish a Palestinian state in order to prevent the creation of a de facto one state, which will obliterate Israel’s Jewish national identity.”
On the whole, such articles cannot be construed as anything but a means for justifying a number of Israeli arrangements and policies that aim at preserving the Jewish identity of Israel. While Western public opinion may find “racism” in these policies and measures, seeking rationalisation is deemed crucial at this moment. Another possibility for the purpose of these articles would be a prelude to the looming failure in the negotiations, due to stiff Israeli positions concerning the city of Jerusalem and/or the intransigent stance on the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
At this juncture, it is a noteworthy reminder that the first usage of the term “Jewish state” was by Theodor Herzl in 1896, which gave birth to the Zionist movement. In 1917, the Balfour Declaration called for the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Hence, Israel was referred to as a Jewish nation state in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948.
It is also important to note that since its establishment in 1948 until today, Israel has no constitution and what defines its national goals and values is a collection of eleven basic laws, none of which defines Israel “as a Jewish state.” Moreover, the 160 countries that recognised Israel neither acknowledged its Jewish nature nor were required to do so. In the only peace treaties between two Arab countries (Egypt and Jordan) and Israel, there was no reference to Israel’s Jewish character. The underlying rationale and the unheralded intentions for Israel’s demand are clear: the association of Israel as a Jewish state and the waiver of any right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Tellingly, Netanyahu’s precondition to settle the conflict with the Palestinians pending their recognition of the Jewish state is based on a number of rationales. First, such recognition will, undoubtedly, erase the right of return of the Palestinian refugees, and hence abolish one significant element of the final status issues for negotiations with Israel. In other words, if Israel is to be recognised as a Jewish state, Muslim and Christian refugees will give up their right of determination and will become ineligible to return to their homes, from which they were uprooted decades ago. It is unequivocal that Netanyahu’s subtle demand for recognition is, in reality, an effort to relinquish a cornerstone element of the conflict, and by default, squander any chance of achieving a peace agreement through dictating the outcome of the final status issues outside the negotiations table. Second, this recognition would prepare the grounds for a long-awaited transfer plan, which was intended to transfer as many Christian and Muslim Arab citizens as possible from Israel in order to preserve Israeli’s Jewish majority.
According to the Israeli Ha’aretz newspaper, Israel admits to revoking the residency rights of a quarter million Palestinians since 1967. Ido Blum, the head of Israel’s HaMoked legal team, said that while the policy of revoking residencies no longer applies to the West Bank and Gaza, it is still implemented in East Jerusalem. Palestinians unable to provide documents, including utility bills or school enrolment forms, that indicate Jerusalem is their “centre of life” risk losing their permit to stay there. More so, in her article ‘‘Quiet transfer”, Elodie Guego describes the policies of revoking the residency permits of Palestinian Jerusalemites and Judaizing the city through “ethnic cleansing”.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat said: “When the Palestinians recognised Israel, they recognised the composition of the state.” He added: “For the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state would adversely impact the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel.” It is undoubtedly the case that Palestinians’ recognition of Israel as a Jewish State implies Palestinian consent to abandoning their land, real estate and other property in Israel.
In this respect, Ben-Meir lambasted Netanyahu’s “absurdity of linking peace with the Palestinians to their recognition of Israel as a Jewish state,” adding: “Recognising Israel as a Jewish state by the Palestinians, as demanded by Netanyahu, is of no value or consequence, not any more than the four countries identified by their religious majority: the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.” Yair Lapid, Netanyahu’s finance minister, announced in October that he opposes a demand set by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is a condition for any future peace agreement.
Some Israeli officials evoke the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, or the “UN Partition Plan”, decided in November 1947, which was a plan to replace the British Mandate for Palestine with “Independent Arab and Jewish States”. The text of the resolution discussed two states, the “Jewish” and “Arab”- presumably Palestine, where the latter shall take 43% of the total land belonging to historical Palestine and the “Jewish” state will obtain 56%.
However, current Israeli leadership insists that Palestinians cannot negotiate for more than 22% of historical Palestine in their peace talks and must recognise Israel as a Jewish State. The partition plan puts a “Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem” administered by the United Nations, which Israel utterly refuses, as it is aiming to be solely responsible and the lone sway in the holy city of Jerusalem. So to speak, it would be bizarre to take one part of the partition plan (a Jewish state), and disregard the rest of its components.
It is axiomatic that there exists a leadership that is not willing to take bold steps and cede untenable demands, a leadership that adopts only gunboat diplomacy in the starkest terms, undermining the importance of achieving peace and prevaricating its responsibilities towards it. With the Iranian nuclear file, particularly, uncertainty lingers, untoward outcomes follow and any chances for current tenuous peace talks are susceptible to utter failure.
Fadi Elhusseini is a Political and Media Counselor in Turkey. He is an associate research fellow (ESRC) at the Institute for Middle East Studies-Canada and a doctoral candidate at the University of Sunderland in Britain.