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.
Second, the strategy appears to have been aimed at forging greater Israeli unity and taking the wind out of the opposition’s sails. In the months leading up to his Bar-Ilan speech, Netanyahu and opposition leader Tzipi Livni were bitterly at odds over the Palestinian-state issue, with Livni claiming it was Netanyahu’s recalcitrance that was preventing peace with the Palestinians and ruining Israel’s image in the world. After June 14, Livni lost that weapon against Netanyahu and indeed has been more or less drifting in the political wilderness.
More significantly, Netanyahu’s speech was aimed both at the Israeli left of center and right of center. It emphasized the desirability of ceasing to rule over the Palestinians, an issue particularly important to the former; and, in the context of demilitarization, the gravity of Israel’s security needs, of particular concern to the latter. A recent poll indeed indicates that Netanyahu and his coalition are doing much better than Livni and the opposition. Netanyahu’s successful blending of mainstream right- and left-wing themes in his Jewish-state strategy undoubtedly has something to do with it.
Third, and most important, Netanyahu’s strategy is aimed, as one Israeli analyst has put it, at “convinc[ing] the U.S. administration that he is not the factor obstructing its efforts to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track.” There, it is harder to say that it’s working.
If President Barack Obama is impressed by the fact that the Palestinians reject even the possibility of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, he has yet to show it. Not even the fact that Abbas, after continuing to stonewall negotiations despite Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech and despite the ten-month settlement moratorium he instated last November, finally entered the talks in September only to promptly leave them with the demand that Netanyahu extend the freeze, seems to have suggested to the administration that the classic “two-state solution” paradigm is, once again, flawed and overlooks the Palestinians’ deep-seated inability to compromise with Israel.
Instead, this month the administration persisted in zealous efforts to get the sides to restart the talks, which seemed to have become an obsessive goal divorced from the empirical record. For Israel, this means ongoing pressure and potential internal dissension, balanced by no gain. If the U.S. involvement has now waned, it’s only because of the upcoming elections. However they turn out, it seems safe to say that for Netanyahu “convinc[ing] the U.S. that he is not the factor obstructing [a solution]” will continue to be hard work.
To sum up, Netanyahu’s Jewish-state strategy appears to have been effective in restoring Israel’s standing as a party that has demands of its own and does not just submit to demands; and particularly in enhancing Israeli unity and weakening Netanyahu’s opposition. That the strategy has—for any dispassionate onlooker—exposed the Palestinians’ ongoing extremism does not, however, seem to have lifted the blinders from a president deeply invested in the notion of compensating them for ostensible grievances.
Was the Jewish-state strategy, then, a wise one for Netanyahu to adopt, or at least the best one available?
Not necessarily. The notion of a sovereign Arab state squeezed in beside Israel in the tiny, forty-mile-wide territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan is inherently gravely dangerous. It may seem almost tautological that, if such a state were to be effectively demilitarized as Netanyahu posits, it could not threaten Israel. But as T. S. Eliot once observed, “Between the idea/And the reality…Falls the shadow.” Demilitarization as stipulated in a formal peace agreement could easily turn into something else, especially if negotiated on the Israeli side by a prime minister less deep and serious than Netanyahu.
That said, the strategy at this point appears to be doing more good than harm.
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