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In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University on June 14 last year, in which he broke with his own and his Likud Party’s ideological background by accepting the principle of a Palestinian state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, he laid down two conditions for that acceptance. One was that the Palestinian state be effectively demilitarized. The other was that “the Palestinians recognize Israel as the State of the Jewish people.”
Netanyahu has reiterated the Jewish-state theme more than once this month, most notably in offering to extend the freeze on Jewish home-building in the West Bank in return for that same recognition that the Palestinians, of course, continue to refuse to grant. In other words, what Netanyahu was articulating back on June 14, 2009, was a strategy, one he keeps pursuing and will likely continue to pursue.
Palestinians have noted in reply that Israel has signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan without demanding that these countries formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinians also say that they already “recognized Israel” at the start of the Oslo process in 1993—which means only that they recognized its existence as a fact, a “recognition” that is without normative content.
They also point out that Israel, off and on, has been negotiating with the Palestinians since 1993 without the Jewish-state recognition. But these Palestinian objections to Netanyahu’s demand can easily be turned around by asking why the recognition should be so hard to grant in the first place—especially when Netanyahu, the Likud leader, has explicitly accepted the Palestinian-state principle.
Is Netanyahu’s Jewish-state strategy working, then? Now that it has been in place for almost a year and a half, one can start to assess what it is trying to achieve and to what extent it is succeeding.
First, the strategy is clearly aimed at taking Israel off the defensive. Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech came in response to severe pressure from the Obama administration particularly on the settlement issue, expressed in harsh public statements that the settlements were allegedly “illegitimate.” Netanyahu and his close advisers appear to have assessed, for better or worse, that trying to defend the settlement policy pursued—to varying extents—by all Israeli governments since 1967 wouldn’t play. Instead they came up with a counter-demand on the Palestinians.
It is not too early to say that whoever came up with the idea can be credited with brilliance. Asking the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, after Netanyahu had done the equivalent for their prospective state, would appear to be the soul of fairness and reciprocity. In consistently, bluntly rejecting the request—Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, for instance, said just the other day that “We’ll never sign a deal demanding recognition of Israel as a Jewish state”—Palestinian leaders end up putting themselves in a light that seemingly, to any fair-minded spectator, is not favorable.
Is it having an effect? To some meaningful extent, yes. Just this month, pro-Israel observers like Douglas Feith, Frida Ghitis, and Jeff Jacoby have written columns explaining and endorsing the Jewish-state theme. Pro-Israel congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) was seeking to introduce a bipartisan resolution calling on the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state—an effort that appears to have slowed thanks to the upcoming elections. The Netanyahu government has succeeded in giving the Jewish-state principle currency and redirecting some of the heat directed at Israel.
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