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A Jewish State: It’s Our Problem, Not Theirs

When Palestinian right of return is combated through the language of Jewish statehood, we are both shifting the conversation away from the central issue and at the same time, giving the Palestinians the tools to reject our legitimate concerns

One cannot enter a negotiation without a clear sense of one’s red lines, the deal-breakers, those issues over which compromise is intolerable. When these red lines lead to a breakdown in the talks, there is no room, nor grounds for self-criticism or self-blame. The purpose of a deal-breaker is to be precisely that – to delineate the issues which if compromised would result in unacceptable harm.
It is critical, however, that one not only delineate one’s red lines, but even more importantly, think very carefully and strategically in determining their identity. It is OK and at times necessary to reject a deal and walk away, despite the consequences of such an act. Careful thought in advance ensures that one does so, only because the consequences of accepting the deal are more severe. A skilled negotiator always keeps these two consequences in his or her mind and is careful to avoid a misplaced red line, which instead of protecting, generates greater harm.
In our negotiations with the Palestinians, the purpose of our red lines is to ensure that a withdrawal from Judea and Samaria and the formation of a Palestinian state not undermine our legitimate security concerns nor our identity as a Jewish state. The content of the first, I will leave to others far more knowledgeable than I to debate the necessity and nature of Palestinian demilitarization, a presence in the Jordan Valley, the exact demarcation of the border, and the like. Our defense and security experts do not agree on the specifics, but most of Israel is united against a deal which neither recognizes nor attempts to address these security concerns. In fact, I believe that a significant part of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s longstanding popularity lies precisely in the fact that the vast majority of Israelis from across the political spectrum trust his instincts and commitment to properly define and preserve our security red lines.
I want to focus on our other red lines, those meant to protect and preserve the identity of Israel as a Jewish state. There are many sub-issues to these red lines, from the necessity of ending the occupation, to ensuring the demographic balance necessary for our Jewish democratic character, to our stake in Jerusalem. Over the last number of years, a new issue has emerged as a primary demand, and under Prime Minister Netanyahu, a deal-breaker: the recognition by the Palestinian Authority of Israel as a Jewish state.
At present, we know that Palestinian leadership has rejected this demand, destining the current negotiations to failure. Unto itself, if this requirement is critical to our future, the fact that it causes a breakdown should not be upsetting, saddening maybe, but not upsetting, for we have no interest in accepting a deal irrespective of its consequences. The goal of the negotiations is not to bring about Israel’s surrender, but an advancement of its deepest interests.
My problem is not with the articulation of red lines meant to ensure the future viability and vitality of Israel as a Jewish state, but rather with the particular articulation of this red line: that the Palestinians formally recognize Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. It is critical, for us, to be meticulous in the formation of our red lines and to not get bogged down in rhetoric, slogans, or self-defeating conditions.
If by recognizing Israel’s identity as a Jewish state our goal is to ensure that the Palestinians accept that the consequence of peace is that the Palestinian state is now the sole homeland of the Palestinian nation, while Israel is the homeland of Israelis, the majority of whom are members of the Jewish nation and the minority of whom are Palestinian, the importance of this red line is critical and not subject to compromise. However, it should be stated as such, and not in its "Jewish state" formulation.
There is no meaning to a peace treaty if after an agreement, Palestinians still believe that their national aspirations can be fulfilled outside of the Palestinian state, and more specifically in Israel. The core issue, red line, and deal-breaker for Israelis is that Palestinians forego their claim to a right of return into the land which constitutes the State of Israel. Palestinians need not forego their narrative about this right, just as Israelis need not forego our narrative regarding the Jewish people’s right to the ancient land of Israel. Neither of us needs to forego our rights, but rather our claim to the actualization of those rights. This is the basic meaning of a peace treaty, the recognition of each other’s borders and foregoing of one’s claim to the other’s land.
The use of the terminology, "Jewish state," to express the above is confusing, unhelpful, and detrimental to Israel’s basic and legitimate interests. The self-evident demand of relinquishing claims and aspirations for national fulfillment and expression in the land of one’s peace partner, is a core part of our legitimate security concerns. Without it, we will remain in a permanent state of conflict and instability. The problem with articulating it in terms of recognizing Israel as the Jewish State, is that this formulation locates the issue within the context of Israel’s Jewish identity concerns, an issue which we, the members of the Jewish nation must pursue, but which we neither need nor expect outsiders, even if they are peace partners, to share with us.
While I would not mind if the Palestinian Authority chose to recognize the Jewish character of Israel and the historic right of the Jewish people to our homeland here in Israel, their recognition of such is of no consequence to me, let alone a red line. If they in fact were willing to recognize it as such, I would be very interested in engaging in a profound dialogue with them as to their understanding of the Jewishness of Israel, an understanding that has so far eluded most Israelis.
When this security concern is couched in a language of Jewish State, we are not only confusing the issue, but harming, I believe, Israel’s interests and needs. In a negotiation, and in the arena of politics, you are only as strong as your best argument, and are harmed by your weaker ones. The frontline of our campaign must be the Palestinian desire to actualize their right of return and in so doing, defeat Israel in a bloodless war and not some vague category of Jewish statehood.
According to our Declaration of Independence, the meaning of "Jewish" in Jewish state refers to the identity of the nation for whom the State of Israel is its rightful expression of sovereignty. The parallel to Jewish state in this sense is Irish state, French state, Palestinian state, and not Christian state or Muslim state. Israel is a Jewish state not in the sense that it is where Judaism is sovereign, but where the Jewish people are the majority and consequently sovereign, all the while protecting the inalienable rights of national and religious minorities, as behooves a democracy.
While this was the intent of the founders of the country and a meaning shared by many Israelis, it is not fully understood, let alone accepted, by many other Israelis. For them, a Jewish state is where Judaism must determine much of the legal and cultural fabric of the country. It is Jewish not because it is the homeland of Jews, but the homeland of Judaism. This latter position profoundly undermines the democratic commitments of Israel, and our ability to overcome it is one of the central challenges that we face in the decade to come.
If we have yet to resolve the meaning of the term, how can we expect Palestinians to agree to it? Are they, in so doing, agreeing to the primacy of Judaism in Israel, and in so doing, destining Israeli-Palestinians to being second-class citizens in a Jewish theocracy? This interpretation, while rejected by me and possibly Prime Minister Netanyahu, is a viable interpretation, and still an unresolved debate.
When Palestinian right of return is combated through the language of Jewish statehood, we are both shifting the conversation away from the central issue and at the same time, giving the Palestinians the tools to reject our legitimate concerns.
It is possible that peace in our time is unattainable. Both sides need to relinquish some of their claims in order to enable the viability, security, and prosperity of the other. The purpose of the negotiations and red lines is for each side to test the other’s sincerity on this issue. It is not to subdue the other into accepting terminology or slogans which have nothing to do with our ability to live side-by-side in peace.
Posted originally on Times of Israel

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