A boy faced with a solider at the West Bank wall ©WM Commons
Like other peace talks before them, the current negotiations to establish a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine will centre around a handful of key issues: borders; the right of return for Palestinian refugees; the fate of Jerusalem; the security of the Jordan Valley; and, now, recognition of Israel as the Jewish state.
This last point has become one of the most contentious in the process so far after its inclusion in John Kerry’s framework agreement was reportedly leaked. While both sides are willing to compromise on some issues, according to surveys of public opinion, this is one point on which it looks as though neither is willing to budge. When I visited the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah last week, Director Khalil Shikaki told me that polls currently indicate a willingness from the Palestinian public to compromise on issues such as the 1967 borders (accepting land swaps to allow Israel to absorb the larger settlements) and right of return for refugees (accepting limitations). But although a majority of both Palestinians and Israeli Jews currently support a two-state solution, that collapses around the issue of the Jewish state: the Palestinian public would reject a peace package that included recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, while Israeli Jews would reject a deal that did not include it.
Israel was always conceived as the Jewish state; a “safe haven [to] save us from Europe,” as Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit put it in a talk with the Israeli ambassador in London last night. On 14th May 1948, the day that Britain withdrew from Palestinian territory, David Ben Gurion declared an independent Israel as “a Jewish state established by and for the Jewish people.” This is not necessarily a religious identity, but a national identity. When I spoke to Einat Wilf, a former member of the Knesset, in Tel Aviv last week, she said that although she regards the Jewish state as a secular, national, atheist concept, Palestinian recognition of it “is not only essential for peace; it is peace. It is the moment at which the Palestinians recognise that we are sharing this land between two peoples.” Shavit also said that “this is what the conflict is about”—a “difficulty in acknowledging” that the Jewish people have a right to exist as a nation in that region.
But the idea that the Jews have always had, and always will have, a historic, religious or moral right to the land is hard to stomach for the Palestinians, who point out that neither the Jordanians nor the Egyptians were required to recognise the Jewish nature of Israel when signing peace agreements. On top of this, there are concerns about how such recognition might impact the treatment of Israeli Arabs—20 per cent of the population—and the right of return for Palestinian refugees to the homes in Israel they fled. In the Jewish state, will Arabs have the same rights to land, education, employment and representation in parliament? Already, some argue that Israeli Arabs have unequal access to land, for example, much of which is owned by the state or organisations such as the Jewish National Fund and leased to citizens, and that Arabic state schools receive less funding per child than Jewish schools. Some Israeli Jews have also expressed discomfort with having their country defined by a religion or ethnicity.
Is there a solution to the stalemate? In Ramallah, Shikaki suggested that dealing with the issue after a peace deal had been made could be more practical, as concerns about returning refugees and the rights of Israeli Arabs might be dealt with under the terms of the deal. During her visit to the country this week, however, Angela Merkel appeared to back the Israeli demand: “We in the federal government support a two-state solution—a Palestinian state and a Jewish state of Israel,” she said.