Kerry (and NYT) carry water for Netanyahu on ‘Jewish state’ demand

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We’re late on this, but it’s very important: the rising chorus calling on the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state in order for two-state talks to go forward.

An old rightwing Israeli obstacle to any genuine talks, this demand was passed along as gospel by The New York Times last week. Jodi Rudoren rubber-stamped it:

As Middle East peace talks churn on, Israel has catapulted to the fore an issue that may be even more intractable than old ones like security and settlements: a demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state…

Without acceptance by the Palestinians that their neighbor is and will be, in Israel’s favored formulation, “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” Israelis argue that they can never be convinced that an agreement truly spells the end of the conflict.

“The core of this conflict has never been borders and settlements — it’s about one thing: the persistent refusal to accept the Jewish state in any border,” Mr. Netanyahu said last month in a video statement to the Saban Forum in Washington.

In fairness to Rudoren, she got the news: John Kerry is said to have swallowed Netanyahu’s “essential” condition whole.

At the State Department briefing yesterday (above) AP’s Matt Lee chased State’s Jen Psaki round and round the podium on the matter and couldn’t get an answer:

Lee: There are multiple reports this morning and this afternoon that the Secretary has asked the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia to amend or alter the Arab peace proposal to include a recognition of Israel as a Jewish state in the hopes that that will give President Abbas some flexibility, some political room to do the same thing… would the United States like or not like to see the Arab world recognize Israel as a Jewish state?

Psaki: I’m not going to – you know what our position is – the United States. Obviously, this is a discussion that’s a part of the negotiations. I’m not going to parse it further.

Yousef Munayyer has also pointed out that Israel is wagging the dog on this demand:

Jewish state demand relatively new, 67 lines older central part of process. Fact that US connecting the two shows Israel setting framework

— Yousef Munayyer (@YousefMunayyer) December 30, 2013

Bernard Avishai, the liberal Zionist, is nettled by the demand, as an obstacle to talks. Last week he  followed up Rudoren’s piece in The New Yorker, saying how obnoxious Netanyahu’s demand is on several layers, including the insult to democracy.

this Jewish state allocates public land (over ninety per cent of it) almost exclusively to certified Jews, creates immigration laws to bestow citizenship on certified Jews, empowers the Jewish Agency to advance the well-being of certified Jews, lacks civil marriage and appoints rabbis to marry certified Jews only to one another, founded an Orthodox educational system to produce certified Jews (more than half of Jewish first-graders in Jerusalem attend these), assumes custodianship of a sacred capital for the world’s certified Jews—indeed, this Jewish state presumes to certify Jews in the first place…. In Israel, having J-positive blood is a serious material advantage.

Such a state must be anathema to Palestinian leaders, who cannot but notice that a fifth (soon, a quarter) of Israeli citizens are Palestinian in origin, and thus are materially, legally disadvantaged by birth: they can recognize Israel but cannot possibly accept this state. But then, it is anathema also to Israeli Jews with ordinary democratic instincts, irrespective of how Palestinians feel about it.

In Haaretz today, Chemi Shalev has an excellent piece showing that “Jewishness” as a definition of the Israeli state is a right wing claim that has slowly eclipsed “Israelness” as a definition.

Shalev says that religious nationalists like Netanyahu staked out the position partly so as to compel American Jewish support for Israel. And that the demand justifiably gives Palestinians fear.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish State” or, in a different formulation, as the “nation state of the Jewish people.” …

[I]f Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people as a whole, then the prime minister, ipso facto, is the prime minister of Jews wherever they may be. That’s why Netanyahu can tell the U.S. Congress “I speak on behalf of the Jewish people.” That’s how he can openly call on U.S. Jews to “stand up and be counted” in his campaign against U.S. policies on Iran. That’s why he made no effort to correct David Gregory who anointed him “Leader of the Jewish people” on Meet the Press last year.

The right wing, in fact, would like to adopt the Jewish people wholesale, wherever they are, and to thus prop up the Jewish majority in the “Greater Land of Israel” by remote control or even, potentially, by giving Diaspora Jews the vote. And by demanding that hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs be “transferred” to another sovereignty and another citizenship, Netanyahu’s deputy and Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is only confirming the claims of many Palestinians: that by recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, Abbas would be giving his blessing to those, like Lieberman, who view the citizenship of Israeli Arabs as second rate and expendable.

Shalev also wonders who came up with the formulation “nation state of the Jewish people.”

Love it or loathe it, one cannot understate the public relations genius behind this stipulation. It has captured the imaginations of Israelis, Jews and many other Israel-supporting people around the world. Secretary of State John Kerry is said to be pressing Arab states to accept it.

Annie Robbins points me to this interview with former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, who got “sage advice” from American Jewish leaders on this very issue:

[When I returned to the U.S. as ambassador in 2009,] I had not lived in the United States for a quarter of a century. I had this Rip Van Winkle experience of this guy who wakes up after a long… I consulted with a lot of guides in the American Jewish community about what had happened in those 25 years. I had some wonderful people helping me. I got very sage advice. There was a big question about this notion of “the nation state of the Jewish people.” At the time, I think the prime minister was referring to Israel as the Jewish state. They came back to me and said the locution, the formula, that would be most acceptable to a majority of American Jews would be Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. And I conveyed this to the Prime Minister’s Office, and we adopted it. We got this from these American Jewish leaders.

I take it very seriously: the nation state of the Jewish people. But we’ve got to stand behind it. Now we’ve accepted the formula, let’s live up to it.

I go back to the peace talks and the New York Times reports. In her story the other day, Jodi Rudoren devoted 25 paragraphs to Netanyahu’s demand, taking very seriously “Israel’s founding principle as a Jewish state for the Jewish people.” Only three or four of those paragraphs dealt with the “poison pill” theory– the demand is something the Israelis came up with to block the latest round of talks.

Back in 2010, Times correspondent Ethan Bronner was more forthright about Netanyahu’s gamesmanship on the issue: 

An offer on Monday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to freeze West Bank Jewish settlements in exchange for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state — instantly rejected by the Palestinians — was the latest complex maneuver engendering debate about his intentions.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered the Palestinians a new freeze on building in settlements if they recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

The offer, made in a speech at the opening of the fall session of Parliament, was aimed either at keeping talks with the Palestinians alive and his right-wing coalition partners in check, or at seeking to shift the burden of failure to the Palestinians and escape blame should the talks wither and die.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman and aide close to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, said the Palestinians had long ago recognized Israel and would not engage in defining its character or ethnicity.

Back then, our publisher Scott Roth wrote to the Times to say the demand was a tactic Netanyahu was deploying to avoid a just resolution of the conflict. His letter is as fresh and concise today as it was then:

To the Editor:

The Palestinians are averse to recognizing Israel as the “Jewish state” for many reasons. First, to do so would essentially concede that what happened in 1948 was a justified historical fact, that the establishment of Israel and the coinciding dispossession of the Palestinians was somehow “right.”

What group of people would ever stipulate that their greatest tragedy was justified on historical grounds?

Also, to recognize Israel as the Jewish state would imply Palestinian acceptance of the privileged status of Jews as opposed to non-Jews under Israeli law. Would blacks in apartheid South Africa have agreed to anything that would have implied a justification for their status under the law?

The fact is that Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized Israel’s right to exist long ago; this is sufficient for a peace agreement, and Michael B. Oren understands this. The further recognition sought by the Netanyahu government only insults the Palestinians and makes a peace agreement less likely.

Scott H. Roth
New York, Oct. 14, 2010

Thanks to James North for thinking behind this piece.

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