The threats that surround us are real – from Islamic State, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Sinai and of course Iran.
Almost all Israelis want peace, as do almost all Palestinians.
See the latest opinion pieces on our Opinion & Blogs Facebook page
But a large majority on both sides simply do not believe that it is possible – not that they don’t want it – simply that it is not possible. In the Israeli elections no party presented concrete solutions that could alleviate the fears.
The word “peace” was absent in the campaigns of all of the parties. The threats and the fears were very present, and Netanyahu knew very well how to amplify them. When that is the situation, the main concern of the Israeli voter is “who is going to protect me better – Netanyahu or Isaac Herzog?” Their answer was loud and clear.
I travel all over Israel and speak about Israeli-Palestinian peace. I have some really good answers to almost every question I am asked. But when I am asked one specific question, my answers are not good enough. The questions is: why do the Palestinians refuse to recognize the Jewish people’s right to a state? What can’t the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people? I tell them that the Palestinians recognized Israel and that should be good enough, but it is not. They say that the Palestinians have never accepted the right of the Jewish people to have a state of their own in their ancient homeland and that the Palestinians only recognized Israel because Israel is strong today, but that if Israel were not so strong the Palestinians would deny Israel’s right to exist.
I challenge the Palestinians and ask: why it is so hard for them to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people? Is it because Israel has not yet recognized the Palestinian people’s right to a state of their own? I don’t think so – if tomorrow Israel announced its willingness to recognize Palestine, would Palestinians recognize the Jewish people’s right to a state? Or is it, as the majority of Jewish Israelis say, that Palestinians reject Israel’s right to exist as a nation state of the Jewish people? This seems to be so fundamental to Jews in Israel and around the world that there is no way of avoiding it, and there is a real need to address this issue directly, and now.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has said repeatedly that his primary condition for serious negotiations is for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. So why not just do it and challenge Netanyahu to be serious about negotiations? Many Israelis believe that the Palestinians do not really accept the legitimacy of Israel’s existence and are not really prepared to make genuine, lasting peace. Many Israelis speak about a “two-stage solution” not a “two-state solution,” meaning that the Palestinians are willing to make peace with Israel today because Israel is strong and the Palestinians are weak, but one day soon, that will change and then Israel will be wiped off the map. Those Israeli views are empowered by the continuation of incitement against Israel and Jews in the Palestinian media and in textbooks.
This is not made up, it is real, it is a great concern to the Israeli government and the Israeli people and it must be confronted by Palestinian leaders and by the Palestinian people. I know that the reality of occupation is harsh and that there is a great deal of daily suffering for Palestinians.
I am very aware of the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons. It is clear that every aspect of life for Palestinians is under Israeli control and domination. There is no argument that the Palestinian people must gain their freedom and liberation from the Israeli occupation. But there are many questions regarding Palestinians’ true willingness and readiness to live in lasting peace next to Israel.
So why is it so hard to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people? Is it because of the basic underlying injustice that Palestinians feel, stemming from the belief that their land was taken from them by the Jews in order to create Israel and that Israel should be eliminated so that Palestinians can have justice? Did the occupation begin in 1948 or in 1967? If the answer is 1948 then there is no such thing as a “two-state solution” and the one-state proposal is really just a statement of intent for the elimination of the State of Israel.
I know that the concept “Jewish” is complex. Most Palestinians and many non-Jews confuse Judaism as a religion with Judaism as a nation, as a people. They say, why should there be a Jewish state – referring to Israel as a theocracy – a state of a religion. Israel’s Jewishness, though, is much more than that, in fact, Israel is a civil state not a religious state or a theocracy. While laws of personal status (inherited from the Ottomans – also in Palestine) are controlled by the religious clergy and communities, the laws of the State of Israel are civil laws not religious laws.
I am Jewish. I am not religious yet I am very Jewish and very much feel a part of the Jewish people, in Israel and around the world. For me, Israel is my national home, not because of religion, but because I feel myself to be part of the Jewish people. I know that this is confusing.
But it is very real.
I know that Palestinians are concerned about the welfare of the 1.2 million Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel.
If Israel is recognized as the nation-state of the Jewish people, what becomes of them? Well, first every country in the world which is recognized as a nation state of one people has minorities in its midst. If those states are democratic there are guarantees for the protection of the rights of the minorities. Germany is the nation state of the German people, but millions of Turks live there. No one questions the rights of the Germans to define their state as the nation state of the German people while guaranteeing the rights of the Turkish citizens who live there. The same is true for every other nation state.
The rights of the Palestinian minority in Israel must be protected. They are living on their land, in their country.
The overwhelming majority of Palestinian Israelis live in communities which are exclusively Palestinian. They study in schools in Arabic and have cultural institutions of their own developing Arabic culture in Israel, supported by the state. Yes, there is discrimination against the Palestinian citizens in Israel and full equal rights do not yet exist, but the situation is constantly improving. The prime minister of Israel and the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis do not even contemplate the possibility that Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people would open a door to claims that the Palestinian citizens of Israel should be forced to leave the state.
Despite the racism expressed by Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman in the run-up to the recent elections, this is not really part of the Israeli discourse.
There is no real debate about expelling Palestinian citizens of Israel from their homes.
I also know that Palestinians are concerned that if they recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people they would lose any claims they wish to make in negotiations with Israel regarding the rights of the refugees to go home. The refugee issue is on the table and the parties will negotiate it. It is true that there is a fundamental contradiction between the idea of the “two states for two peoples” solution and the right of return of any significant number of Palestinians to Israel proper. That is a hard reality to swallow. But that is the fundamental principle behind the strategic decision that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian people made when the declared independence of the Palestinian state on the lands occupied by Israel in 1967, giving up their claim to the lands beyond in Israel proper.
Here is what I propose – the Palestinian leaders, with the support of the people, should state the following: When Israel is prepared to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people for a nation-state of their own, based on the June 1967 borders with agreed to minimal territorial swaps, with the Palestinian capital in Jerusalem and an agreed solution to the refugee issue (as stated in the Arab Peace Initiative) and with adequate guarantees for the individual and collective rights of the Palestinian minority in Israel, then we, the Palestinian leadership and people will be prepared to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. That should not be too difficult to say, and the sooner the better.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew, and in English as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press. (An Arabic version of this article appeared this week in the Palestinian daily newspaper Al Quds).