Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Palestinians and the "Jewish state

Palestinian negotiators have a miserable task – each time they approach the Israeli position, the Israelis demand more.

One would have thought that the “Palestinian Versailles” – as Edward Said called the 1993 Oslo accords – were enough of a concession to Israel. But with the illegal settlement activity and the illegal West Bank wall, Israel continues to demand more land for less peace.

For decades Israeli negotiators would sullenly say that the Palestinian parties refused to accept Israel’s right to exist. Oslo invalided that call, but of course it did not bring from Israel its corollary – namely, the right to existence of Palestine.

Not long after Oslo, the Israeli position morphed; no longer was it sufficient to demand that Palestinians recognize Israel, they also had to accept that Israel is a “Jewish state.” It has become a demand of the current negotiations ongoing in fits and starts under the auspices of US Secretary of State John Kerry. The Israeli demand is so outrageous that Kerry told US Congress on 13 March that this is a “mistake.”

On 25 March, the Arab League passed a unanimous resolution stating: “We express our total rejection of the call to consider Israel as a Jewish state.” The League followed the argument made by a new UN report – “Arab Integration” – produced by the UN’s Economic and Social Commission of West Asia (ESCWA).

“Israel insists on being recognized by the world and the Arabs as an exclusively Jewish state,” notes the report, released in early March. “It imposes this recognition as a condition for reaching a settlement with the Palestinians. This policy is based on the concept of the religious or ethnic purity of states, which brought humanity the worst crimes and atrocities of the twentieth century.”

These are strong words. It implies that a better comparison for Israel than its preferred glance to the West is to its south – to Saudi Arabia, another state that bases itself on religious supremacy and denies minority rights. It is a comparison that the Israelis do not want to adopt.

Confusion and frustration

On 5 March and 7 April, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor sent strong letters to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemning Rima Khalaf, a former Jordanian cabinet minister who heads ESCWA.

In his second letter, quoted by the Israeli daily Haaretz, Ambassador Prosor says that Dr. Khalaf “may have a PhD in Systems Science, but she deserves a PhD in science fiction for her 200 page report filled with conspiracy theories. There is far more fiction than fact in this report that alleges that Israel is reviving the concept of ‘state ethnic and religious purity.’” Prosor throws in the now conventional allegations that Dr. Khalaf’s “accusations represent the epitome of modern day anti-Semitism” and that she is “demonizing Israel.”

Reading these letters one would assume that Israel does not want to be called a “Jewish state,” a concept that is indeed about “state ethnic and religious purity.” If this is the case then there is confusion in many quarters, where there is indeed frustration with the new demand coming from Tel Aviv.

On 4 March, at his favorite venue, the Washington, DC conference of AIPAC, the powerful Israel lobby group, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to “recognize the Jewish state,” making clear that this would mean the invalidation of the Palestinian “right of return” (“You would be telling Palestinians to abandon the fantasy of flooding Israel with refugees”).

What is Israel’s definition of a Jewish state if it does not conform to “ethnic and religious purity?” Israel has not been able to settle this question. Parliamentarian Avi Dichter (Kadima) has put bills before the Knesset in 2010 and 2011 calling for an end to Arabic as an official language, with Jewish religious law taking the place of Israel’s Basic Law. These bills were withdrawn.

Last year, two sets of bills from Yariv Levin (Likud) and Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) as well as Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) tried to define the term “Jewish State,” but again could not find consensus. How can the Palestinian leadership agree to a vague term that Israeli lawmakers cannot define?

“Apartheid law”

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has an anodyne definition, linking the term to the idea of nationality: “Since their emergence in antiquity, the Jewish people have constituted a nation, a people and a civilization, anchored in basic aspects of their identity, such as Judaism and the Hebrew language. Israel is to the Jewish people what France is to the French people, Ireland is to the Irish and Japan is to the Japanese.”

But the Israeli state-building exercise – by the displacement of the Palestinians – is different from that of the French, Irish and Japanese. However, the comparison is salient in terms of minority rights. France suffers today from an absence of robust statutory and social protection for minority rights, and it also suffers from the growth of a xenophobic political force (captured to some extent by the National Front) that seeks to subordinate minorities.

This is precisely what Levin and Shaked’s bill sought, which is why the Israeli newspaper Haaretz called it an “apartheid law” (“Basic Law: Apartheid in Israel,” 30 March 2013).

This kind of law, the newspaper’s editorial board writes, is shockingly low on tolerance for minorities. “Arabs will enjoy at best the status of a tolerated minority, with the option of turning them into a non-tolerated minority down the line, one which needs to be rid of because its presence spoils the state’s Jewish purity.”

Is this the “Jewish state” that the Israeli negotiators want the Palestinian leadership to accept? If so, then the ESCWA report is correct, and Ambassador Prosor needs to apologize to Dr. Khalaf.

“Torpedo the negotiations”

Frustration with Israel’s new demand – that the Palestinians accept it as a Jewish state – has gone into the heart of the US diplomatic establishment. In an open letter published by on 8 April, six leading US diplomats (including former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci) reject the Israeli demand and ask John Kerry to “stand firm.”

Israeli politicians “do not have the right to demand that Palestinians abandon their own national narrative,” they write, “and the United States should not be a party to such a demand … Israeli demands that Palestinians recognize that Israel has been and remains the national homeland of the Jewish people is intended to require the Palestinians to affirm the legitimacy of Israel’s replacement of Palestine’s Arab population with its own. It also raises fears of continuing differential treatment of Israel’s Arab citizens.”

In late March, Knesset member Zehava Galon (Meretz) said that Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state “was meant to torpedo the negotiations.”

This seems to be the case. As the “peace process” goes once more into deep freeze, the Israeli government waits to change the “facts on the ground” with greater resolution — more settlements, more security barriers, less rights to Palestinians, and less chance of any political dialogue.

In 2003, Netanyahu said that the wall built to encage the West Bank would prevent a “demographic spillover” into Israel. The collapse of the “peace process” to deliver a two-state solution threatens to leave the Israelis with only two options – expel the Palestinians to Jordan and Egypt to liquidate the Palestinian question, or absorb the Palestinians into a non-racial single state.

Israeli policy leans toward the former, with the latter its nightmare. There is no seriousness of purpose in Israel toward any kind of negotiation. It has gained ground by obduracy. Why should it shift its strategy now? More

Vijay Prashad is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut. He has an essay in Githa Hariharan’s edited volume From India to Palestine: Essays in Solidarity (New Delhi: LeftWord, 2014), reviewed by The Electronic Intifada.