A Millstone Round His Neck: Obama’s Yes to Bibi’s ‘No Negotiations Unless Palestinians Recognize Israel as Jewish State’

I watched live coverage of the press conference given by President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron at Lancaster House on 25 May. Towards the end, a journalist asked Obama an intelligent question about the Middle East speech he made a few days previously. In his answer he spoke of the necessity of there being:

A Jewish state of Israel and a sovereign state of Palestine.

Obama made a specific point of referring to Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ in his Middle East speech, thereby giving legitimacy to the Netanyahu government’s insistence that there will be no peace deal with the Palestinians unless they recognize Israel as the ‘Jewish state’. It seems pretty obvious that Obama used this formulation as a way of reassuring Israel that America has its central existential interests at heart in order then to secure Netanyahu’s agreement to negotiations on the basis of the statement he made in his Middle East speech: ‘The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.’

This quid pro quo fell flat when Netanyahu dismissed the 1967 borders proposal as unworkable because Israel could never be secure if it returned to the Green Line – the ‘Auschwitz borders’ he and other Israeli leaders called them. But the ‘Jewish state’ concession was now a fact. Never mind that, until it was first mooted as a precondition for negotiations under George W. Bush, the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the ‘Jewish state’ had never before figured in any peace negotiations. It was always enough that the Palestinians recognize the existence of the state of Israel, which they did in the framework of the Oslo Accords. By endorsing the recognition of Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ as a precondition for peace negotiations, Obama has simply raised the bar for getting such negotiations off the ground.

Many commentators have pointed out the absurdity of introducing this complication into efforts to restart peace talks. For a start, Israel can call itself what it likes, in the same way that East Germany called itself the German Democratic Republic. The West was not obliged to sign a document confirming that East Germany was indeed democratic – they knew perfectly well that it wasn’t – before any diplomatic discussions with the country could take place. Recognition of the East German state was enough. And there are many other good reasons why introducing the ‘Jewish state’ concept into peace discussions is unnecessary.

But hearing Obama distinguish ‘A Jewish state of Israel’ from ‘a sovereign state of Palestine’ suddenly brought home to me in a new and even clearer fashion the absurdity of insisting that the ‘Jewish state’ formulation be accepted by the Palestinians as a precondition for any serious peace talks.

For argument’s sake, what if the Palestinians wanted to do the same? That is, what if they insisted that theirs would be a Muslim state of Palestine and wanted it referred to and recognized as such in these terms in all future peace negotiations, or at least stated that it was a decision of the Palestinian Authority that the future state would be designated thus: the Islamic Republic of Palestine? The argument that such a title would be inappropriate because there would be Christian Palestinians living in this state is invalid given the fact that Israel calls itself a Jewish state even though 20 per cent of the population is not Jewish. On what basis should Palestine be denied when Israel is permitted?

That, however, would not be enough to deter those who objected to Palestine declaring itself an Islamic state. Others would say that experience shows Islamic states cannot be truly democratic – Iran, for example. But again, this would not hold water since Israel, by declaring itself the ‘Jewish state’, prioritises its theocratic over its democratic character.

In reality, the main objection to a ‘Muslim state of Palestine’ would be on the grounds that a Palestine calling itself ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islamic’ is likely to reflect Islamist tendencies and therefore would be anathema to the West. Moreover, it’s almost certain that Israel would refuse to negotiate with the PA if the Palestinians’ precondition for talks was Israeli acceptance that the future Palestinian state would be Muslim. It would undoubtedly see this as a further threat to Israel.

Of course, the Palestinians have no intention of declaring Palestine an Islamic state, but working through the implications of what would happen if they did shows just how unfairly the putative state of Palestine is being treated. America raises no such objections when it comes to what Israel wants to call itself, yet the way it treats its Palestinian-Arab citizens and the Palestinians under its ultimate control in the West Bank and Gaza – the former as second class citizens, the latter as undeserving of respect for their human rights – should have made the US administration think far more carefully about the consequences of legitimizing the Israeli government’s demand that the Palestinians be compelled to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The key to solving this conflict is prioritizing the absolute equality of human rights of Palestinians and Israelis, not legitimizing sectarian self-appellations that contain licence to discriminate against others.

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