Till now, Israel’s treaties with Egypt, and Jordan and its peace efforts under the Oslo rubric were based on the simple recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Throughout the years of negotiations, Israelis presumed that the concept of Israel as an acknowledged Jewish state was self-evident.
But Oslo’s collapse lays bare the Palestinian state of denial over recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. As former consul-general Alon Pinkas explains:
The Arab world has de-facto recognised Israel’s existence, but not its right to exist. The Arabs recognise Israel as a strategic fact of life, a military power that currently is invincible. Israel, according to this paradigm is not a permanent feature in the Middle East.
Give or take 200 years and they will be driven out. So goes the Arab argument.
Now, Netanyahu — who signed the Wye River and Hebron accords without demanding a higher level of acknowledgement — is pointing out that it’s a waste of time to engage in peace talks with people who can’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Recently, the Washington Post talked to Israeli officials about this new demand, not only focusing on the question of why, but – more importantly – why now?
"If there is no recognition that the Jewish people exist, that the Jewish people emerged from this land, then you have no end of conflict," said Michael B. Oren, Netanyahu's incoming ambassador to Washington. "During Oslo, the thinking was: We don't need recognition. We are strong. We are the winners. Give them a chance. Give them an opportunity to acclimate to peace. This was wrong." . . . .
In the intervening years, Arab Israelis — about 20 percent of the country's population — became more assertive about their national identity and pushed for Israel to become "a state of all its citizens," said Jamal Zahalka, an Israeli lawmaker. The intifada that erupted in 2000 and the rise in popularity of the Islamist Hamas movement, advocating Israel's elimination, reinforced the sense that a purely diplomatic accord would not leave Israel secure, said Yoram Hazony, who helped research Netanyahu's 1993 book, "A Place Among the Nations."
• Jews have legitimate national aspirations for self-determination.
• A two state solution that also allows for Palestinian right of return will undermine the stability of Israeli society. Arabs have no track record for successful multi-ethnic states; the social tensions stoked by internal and foreign rejectionists will make Lebanon’s civil war look like a walk in the park.
• Nobody demands that a Palestinian state be “a state of its citizens.” It’s taken for granted that the state of Palestine will have no room or rights for Jews as equal citizens. The Arab states that expelled 850,000 Jews from their lands, have no right to demand that Israel simply be a state of its citizens.
• Should this recognition be a precondition for talks, or is it an issue that can be worked out in the course of peace talks? That’s a fair question. (The knee-jerk Palestinian reaction to Netanyahu’s speech didn’t encourage me.)
• Is Israeli consensus lacking on the question of what it means to be a Jewish state? Yes. But that’s an internal matter for Israeli society to decide. It’s not for outsiders to define another nation’s character, whether we’re talking about Israel, Turkey, Iran. or any other country.
I’ll give the final word to Pinkas:
So Arab recognition of Israel as the state of the Jews is a monumental educational process that is a prerequisite to lasting peace.
Once Israel is “The state of the Jews” in Arab eyes, it has a right to exist. Once it has a right to exist (this in fact is a silly debate: What “right” to exist do Belgium or Uruguay have?) durable coexistence is attainable.
UPDATE June 30: According to deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon, Israel doesn't need this level of recognition from the Palestinians; rather, the Palestinian leaders must educate their people that Israel is a Jewish state. This video was posted on YouTube just today.