62 years on, the continuing struggle to recognize Israel as a Jewish state

October 14, 2010

* It took only six attempts yesterday to get U.S. State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, to answer whether the U.S. recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.

* “Nearly 63 years after the UN recognized the right of the Jewish people to independence in their homeland, the Palestinians are still denying the Jewish nature of the state. ‘Israel can name itself whatever it wants,’ said the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, while his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said that the Palestinian Authority will never recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Back in 1948, opposition to the legitimacy of a Jewish state ignited a war. Today it threatens peace.”

* Lee Smith: “The idea that mandating an oath of allegiance for new citizens is a sign of Israeli fascism is part of the delegitimization campaign against Israel. It fits so well with media blather about the decline of Israeli democracy – and the nightmarish scariness of Israel’s foreign minister – that critics have conveniently ignored the fact that such oaths are normal fare in every major Western democracy.”

* The U.S. oath of allegiance for new citizens, for example, requires new Americans to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty”; promise to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic”; promise to “bear arms” and “perform noncombatant” service at the direction of the U.S. government; and swear that one takes the oath “freely and without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion” in the name of God Almighty himself, all of which makes swearing an oath of allegiance to “the democratic Jewish State of Israel” seem like pretty weak stuff.

* In Bulgaria, persons of very distant Bulgarian origin can become citizens immediately upon arrival in the country without any waiting period and without giving up their current citizenship. The same is true in Croatia. China has a similar policy. And that only takes us through the Cs.

 

CONTENTS

1. “Pulling Teeth at the State Department” (By Rick Richman, Commentary, Oct. 13, 2010)
2. “Negotiations amidst the settlement freeze” (By Michael Singh, Foreign Policy, Oct. 12, 2010)
3. “An End to Israel’s Invisibility” (By Michael Oren, New York Times, Oct. 14, 2010)
4. “Israel’s controversial new loyalty oath” (By Lee Smith, Tablet Magazine, Oct. 13, 2010)


EXTRA NOTE

“RACHEL CORRIE STUDIES”

I am glad to report that after years of “Rachel Corrie Studies” being taught to university undergrads and high schoolers in America and elsewhere, my article The Forgotten Rachels is finally appearing on class curricula as a way of providing some counter balance to “the cult of Rachel Corrie”.

For example, here as part of 10th grade homework (for 16 year olds) this fall.


THE STRUGGLE FOR THE RIGHT TO EXIST

This dispatch concerns the attempt, 62 years after Israel declared independence, to have Palestinians and others recognize Israel as a Jewish state, in much the same way as France is recognized as a French state.

I attach four articles below. I would particularly recommend reading Lee Smith’s article, even though I have placed it last.

-- Tom Gross

 

ON THE SIXTH ATTEMPT, AFTER A 14-WORD PREFACE, HE FINALLY RESPONDED: “YES”

Pulling Teeth at the State Department
By Rick Richman
Commentary Magazine (blog)
October 13, 2010

Having kept a running count of the number of times the Obama administration has refused to answer if it is bound by the 2004 Bush letter (22 times so far), it is a pleasure to report that it took only six attempts yesterday to get the State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, to answer whether the U.S. recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.

Crowley’s first response tried to throw reporters off the track with the tantalizing suggestion that George Mitchell just might go – it would be logical – back to the region at some point. Asked a second time, Crowley responded that we “recognize [Israel’s] aspiration.” On the reporters’ third through fifth tries, Crowley proved hard of hearing. On the sixth attempt, after a 14-word preface, he finally responded: “yes.”

QUESTION: “P.J., do you recognize Israel as a Jewish state and will you try to convince the Palestinians to recognize it?”

MR. CROWLEY: “We will continue our discussions with the parties. I would expect, following up on the Arab League meetings of late last week that George Mitchell will go to the region at some point. I’m not announcing anything, but I – it would be logical for us to follow up directly with the parties, see where they are. [Blah, blah, blah.]”

QUESTION: “And do you recognize Israel as a Jewish state?”

MR. CROWLEY: “We recognize the aspiration of the people of Israel. It has – it’s a democracy. In that democracy, there’s a guarantee of freedom and liberties to all of its citizens. But as the Secretary has said, we understand that – the special character of the state of Israel.”

QUESTION: “Is that a yes or no?”

QUESTION: “P.J., it’s – do you want to answer his question or – “

QUESTION: “Did you say yes or no to that question from Michel?”

MR. CROWLEY: “Hmm?”

QUESTION: “Michel’s question was a yes or no sort of question. I was wondering whether that was a yes or no.”

MR. CROWLEY: “We recognize that Israel is a – as it says itself, is a Jewish state, yes.”

The original question had a second part to it: “… and will you try to convince the Palestinians to recognize it?” After a reporter repeated the question, it took Crowley 162 halting words to respond:

QUESTION: “… Does the U.S. want the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state?”

MR. CROWLEY: “Look, I will be happy to go back over and offer some – I’m trying – I’m not making any news here. We have recognized the special nature of the Israeli state. It is a state for the Jewish people. It is a state for other citizens of other faiths as well. But this is the aspiration of the – what Prime Minister Netanyahu said yesterday is, in essence, the – a core demand of the Israeli Government, which we support, is a recognition that Israel is a part of the region, acceptance by the region of the existence of the state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and that is what they want to see through this negotiation. We understand this aspiration and the prime minister was talking yesterday about the fact that just as they aspire to a state for the Jewish people in the Middle East, they understand the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a state of their own.”

Why is it so hard to get the Obama administration to reiterate basic commitments the U.S. has made – in writing – to Israel? The Bush letter stated that the U.S. is “strongly committed to … [Israel] as a Jewish state.” This administration has to be prodded six times to answer whether it recognizes Israel as a Jewish state and – after an affirmative response is extracted – cannot give a one-word answer on whether it wants the Palestinians to recognize one as well.

 

DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN POSITIONS AND INTERESTS

Negotiations amidst the Settlement Freeze
By Michael Singh
Foreign Policy
October 12, 2010

In negotiating tradecraft, the distinction between positions and interests is a fundamental one. Parties with divergent interests can unite behind common positions, like the environmentalists and trade unions who opposed NAFTA in the 1990s. Just as often, parties with opposing positions fail to perceive their common interests, like divorcing parents whose acrimony blinds them to what is best for their children.

It is neglect of this vital distinction that now has the United States scrambling to salvage Middle East peace talks, which are threatened by a resurgent dispute over Israeli settlement activity. The Obama administration initially viewed the settlements issue as “low-hanging fruit” – the Palestinians, Arab states, international public opinion, and frankly even many Israelis were against settlement activity, whereas a seeming minority on the Israeli right favored it. Thus, the White House viewed insistence on a settlement freeze as a way to restore confidence in U.S. impartiality while jump-starting the peace process. As is now well known, precisely the opposite occurred – U.S. relations with all sides have been strained, and the peace process has yet to take flight.

To understand what went wrong, one must look past the Israelis’ and Palestinians’ positions on settlements and understand how they define their interests.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a June 14, 2009 speech, provided insight into his opposition to a settlement freeze. In his remarks, Netanyahu asserts that “The simple truth is that the root of the conflict has been – and remains – the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to its own state in its historic homeland.” In his view, Arab efforts to eliminate Israel began in 1947 with the United Nations proposal to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and have not truly ebbed since despite Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. That those efforts began before Israel took the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, and that rocket fire from southern Lebanon and Gaza continued after Israeli troops withdrew from both territories, are to Netanyahu and many Israelis evidence that the presence of Israeli troops in the West Bank is not the cause of the animosity toward them.

It is this interest – defending the continued existence of a Jewish state that has been under attack since its founding – that leads not only to Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians explicitly acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, but also to his rejection of a settlement freeze. If the Palestinians and Arabs will not do the former, Netanyahu and his allies view the latter as pointless at best and at worst dangerous succor to those who would delegitimize Israel. While many Israelis do not share Netanyahu’s position on settlements, they do share his interest in defending Israel’s legitimacy, and thus have reacted negatively to what they view as Washington’s harsh approach.

The Palestinian narrative is quite different. For Palestinians, the events of 1948 constituted a catastrophe which left them scattered and displaced. In the nations which received them, they were – with few exceptions – refugees or guest workers with few rights and little respect, despite the lip service paid to the Palestinian cause. For years, Palestinians themselves had scant voice in that cause, and there was little support among leaders in the region or elsewhere for the independent state envisaged in 1947.

For Palestinians, these twin interests – justice for refugees who have been the region’s second-class citizens for sixty years, and ensuring that the emergence of a Palestinian state remains viable – motivate deep opposition to continued Israeli settlement activity. In their view, it makes little sense to engage in negotiations aimed at satisfying these interests while simultaneously acceding to activity which undermines them.

On Monday, Netanyahu offered to extend Israel’s settlement freeze if the Palestinians would recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and the Palestinians immediately refused. Given the interests described above, one can see why Israel made the offer, as well as why the Palestinians rejected it. Israel is ready to modify its position on a settlement freeze if its interests are otherwise satisfied; but Palestinians likewise wish to see their interests fulfilled, and not merely their position on a settlement freeze conceded. For this reason, the Palestinians for their part have insisted that Israel and the United States declare that the basis for negotiations over the borders of a Palestinian state will be the “1967 lines” to ensure a Palestinian state’s viability.

Thus the fight over a settlement freeze is in reality a conflict by proxy over the competing interests of each party. But because those interests will only be satisfied through negotiations, and not conceded by the other side prior to the talks, no sustainable compromise can be found as long as the freeze remains an issue. For this reason, temporarily extending the freeze as the United States is reportedly seeking to do can only postpone a crisis for another day, if that. Moving forward will require that the Obama Administration acknowledge that its early emphasis on settlements was mistaken in order to deflect blame and anger that might otherwise be directed at Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas for changing their stances.

The good news is that while Israeli and Palestinian positions on a settlement freeze are seemingly irreconcilable, the interests underlying their positions are not. Indeed, polling data and anecdotal evidence suggest that the people on both sides are ready for a two-state solution. What’s more, the parties have other interests – such as the desire for peace and quiet for their people and to sideline extremists sponsored by Iran – which enhance the motivation of each to find common ground. This is where American mediation must play a role – helping the parties see past their conflicting positions, and to recognize their mutual interests.

(Michael Singh is a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute and an adjunct fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.)

 

THE CORE OF THE CONFLICT

An end to Israel’s invisibility
By Michael Oren
The New York Times
October 14, 2010

Nearly 63 years after the United Nations recognized the right of the Jewish people to independence in their homeland – and more than 62 years since Israel’s creation – the Palestinians are still denying the Jewish nature of the state. “Israel can name itself whatever it wants,” said the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, while, according to the newspaper Ha’aretz, his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said that the Palestinian Authority will never recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Back in 1948, opposition to the legitimacy of a Jewish state ignited a war. Today it threatens peace.

Mr. Abbas and Mr. Erekat were responding to the call by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, enabling his government to consider extending the moratorium on West Bank construction. “Such a step by the Palestinian Authority would be a confidence-building measure,” Mr. Netanyahu explained, noting that Israel was not demanding recognition as a prerequisite for direct talks. It would “open a new horizon of hope as well as trust among broad parts of the Israeli public.”

Why should it matter whether the Palestinians or any other people recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people? Indeed, Israel never sought similar acknowledgment in its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. Some analysts have suggested that Mr. Netanyahu is merely making a tactical demand that will block any chance for the peace they claim he does not really want.

Affirmation of Israel’s Jewishness, however, is the very foundation of peace, its DNA. Just as Israel recognizes the existence of a Palestinian people with an inalienable right to self-determination in its homeland, so, too, must the Palestinians accede to the Jewish people’s 3,000-year connection to our homeland and our right to sovereignty there. This mutual acceptance is essential if both peoples are to live side by side in two states in genuine and lasting peace.

So why won’t the Palestinians reciprocate? After all, the Jewish right to statehood is a tenet of international law. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 called for the creation of “a national home for the Jewish people” in the land then known as Palestine and, in 1922, the League of Nations cited the “historical connection of the Jewish people” to that country as “the grounds for reconstituting their national home.” In 1947, the United Nations authorized the establishment of “an independent Jewish state,” and recently, while addressing the General Assembly, President Obama proclaimed Israel as “the historic homeland of the Jewish people.” Why, then, can’t the Palestinians simply say “Israel is the Jewish state”?

The reason, perhaps, is that so much of Palestinian identity as a people has coalesced around denying that same status to Jews. “I will not allow it to be written of me that I have ... confirmed the existence of the so-called Temple beneath the Mount,” Yasser Arafat told President Bill Clinton in 2000.

For Palestinians, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state also means accepting that the millions of them residing in Arab countries would be resettled within a future Palestinian state and not within Israel, which their numbers would transform into a Palestinian state in all but name. Reconciling with the Jewish state means that the two-state solution is not a two-stage solution leading, as many Palestinians hope, to Israel’s dissolution.

Which is precisely why Israelis seek the basic reassurance that the Palestinian Authority is ready to accept our state – to accept us. Israelis need to know that further concessions would not render us more vulnerable to terrorism and susceptible to unending demands. Though recognition of Israel as the Jewish state would not shield us from further assaults or pressure, it would prove that the Palestinians are serious about peace.

The core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the refusal to recognize Jews as a people, indigenous to the region and endowed with the right to self-government. Criticism of Israeli policies often serves to obscure this fact, and peace continues to elude us. By urging the Palestinians to recognize us as their permanent and legitimate neighbors, Prime Minister Netanyahu is pointing the way out of the current impasse: he is identifying the only path to co-existence.

(Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, is a subscriber to this mailing list.)

 

ACTIONS THAT NO WESTERN GOVERNMENT WOULD TOLERATE FROM ITS CITIZENS

Under Oath
Israel’s controversial new loyalty oath reflects the reality of sectarian politics in the Middle East
By Lee Smith
Tablet Magazine
October 13, 2010

Sunday the Knesset voted to require an oath of allegiance be administered to naturalized citizens of Israel, swearing to abide by the Jewish and democratic nature of the state. The response has been blind outrage inside Israel and abroad.

“The State of Israel has reached the height of fascism,” says Haneen Zoubi, a member of the Knesset representing Balad, an Arab Israeli party. The oath’s author, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, charges that it is precisely those like Zoubi who make the oath necessary.

Zoubi was aboard the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish-sponsored boat that attempted to run the naval blockade of Gaza. The ship violated international law by refusing to respect a blockade and then attacked an Israeli boarding party, which would make Zoubi, were she a citizen of, say, the United States while it was at war, subject to a number of charges, including conspiracy and treason, and liable to execution by the state.

And she’s not alone: Some of her fellow Knesset members from Arab Israeli political parties have become notorious in recent years for actions that no Western government would tolerate from its citizens – let alone from legislators who are privy to government decisions and counsels.

Ahmed Tibi, an Arab Israeli member of the Knesset, served as a close political adviser to Yasser Arafat as the Palestinian leader planned to undermine the Oslo Accords and murder hundreds of Israelis in the second Intifada. Tibi’s colleague, Azmi Bishara, resigned from the Knesset and fled to Syria in 2007 to avoid facing charges of espionage and treason for giving Hezbollah detailed information about optimal rocket targets inside Israel during the Second Lebanon War.

The idea that mandating an oath of allegiance for new citizens is a sign of Israeli fascism is part of the delegitimization campaign against Israel. It fits so well with media blather about the decline of Israeli democracy – and the nightmarish scariness of Israel’s foreign minister – that critics have conveniently ignored the fact that such oaths are normal fare in every major Western democracy.

The U.S. oath of allegiance for new citizens, for example, requires new Americans to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty”; promise to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic”; promise to “bear arms” and “perform noncombatant” service at the direction of the U.S. government; and swear that one takes the oath “freely and without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion” in the name of God Almighty himself, all of which makes swearing an oath of allegiance to the democratic Jewish State of Israel seem like pretty weak stuff.

The fact that Jews who become new citizens under the Law of Return are exempt from taking the oath is wrongly cited as proof of the inherent racism of the proposed new law. Countries that allow individuals not born in the country to establish citizenship on the basis of blood and cultural ties – a doctrine known as jus sanguinis, or “right of blood” – commonly have a different citizenship procedure for those citizens than for other immigrants. Most European countries – and many other countries – rely on jus sanguinis as the foundation for citizenship. In Bulgaria, persons of very distant Bulgarian origin can become citizens immediately upon arrival in the country without any waiting period and without giving up their current citizenship. The same is true in Croatia. China has a similar policy. And that only takes us through the Cs.

But the furor over the loyalty oath is more than just an index of the increasing tension between Israel and its Arab citizens, and of a combination of rancid anti-Israeli sentiment and sheer ignorance that makes news coverage of the Middle East so difficult to read. Because this is the Middle East, the uproar over the oath of allegiance also reveals the true dynamics that are shaping the region.

Many observers have noted that the loyalty oath coincides with Israeli demands that their Palestinian interlocutors acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state. This is broadly correct: Israeli leadership expects that negotiations entered into with the Palestinian Authority will lead to a final settlement, that at the end of the process, there will be a Palestinian Arab state and a Jewish one, and there will be no interminable haggling over the question of Jewish sovereignty in Israel.

And the reason Jerusalem wants Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad to acknowledge the Jews’ right to a homeland is not merely a feel-good exercise in Middle East tolerance and coexistence, or to salve the national insecurities of the Jews. Rather, the Israeli demand is a referendum on Palestinian sovereignty: If PA officials can’t declare that Israel is a Jewish state without the very legitimate fear of assassination from rivals like Hamas, or state actors like Iran and Syria, then they are incapable of exercising the monopoly on legitimate violence that is the fundamental requirement of nation-building. Jerusalem is highlighting the fact that without the authority to make such a statement, the Palestinian leadership cannot build a Palestinian state; therefore, any treaty the PA signs with Israel is worthless.

It is clear that this logic is lost on Washington. After all, dreamers are not susceptible to disenchantment with the dream worlds that they themselves have built. Even before President Barack Obama came to office, the Americans were pumping so much cash, arms, prestige, and hope into the Palestinian Authority that they convinced themselves that Palestinian institutions would one day lead to a state. U.S.-built Palestinian institutions, like the economy, security forces, and the prime minister, are therefore premised on a questionable assumption: that what the Palestinian people really want is a functioning state side-by-side with Israel.

Statehood represents only one form of political organization; and as the E.U.’s bureaucratic elite will attest, the nation-state is not necessarily the best or even most progressive form of mass politics. But Washington does believe in old-fashioned nation-states, and it is U.S. money and power that gets to call the shots in the Middle East – until the region itself votes otherwise. Yet post-Saddam Iraq is clearly not going to be a beacon of democracy in the Middle East.

Rather, the wars in Iraq have revealed the sectarian nature of the region, where the designation “Arab” is meant to disguise that there is no unified Arab nation, but rather Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Maronites, Alawites, Kurds, Greek Orthodox, as well as Jews. Often these sects are at war with each other in various levels of intensity within what are now state borders, like Iraq or Lebanon.

The French and British are blamed for the way they drew the post-World War I borders, but these accusations ignore the fact that all borders in the Middle East have always been random and malleable, depending on factors like conquest and population transfers, some voluntary and others not. For all the Middle East rhetoric about land as a birthright, the people of the region know when it’s time to go – because the land will no longer support them or some greater power is threatening to wipe them out.

Right now it is Middle East Christians who are leaving Iraq and Lebanon, but they won’t be the last. Consider the Druze, a sect that started in Egypt in the 11th century and moved to the Levant – Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon, where their population is largest. Lebanon’s Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt believes that the sect’s time there is running out; Lebanon will be left to the Sunnis and Shiites to fight over, and eventually they will draw their own borders. The same will happen in Iraq, and perhaps much sooner, as the country is partitioned, while the Kurds will go their own way as soon as they believe they can weather likely wars with the Turks and Persians.

Someday Alawi rule in Syria will come to an end, and if they’re lucky this minority sect considered heretical by the Sunnis will break away in time to the Mediterranean coast, where they’ve carved out an escape hatch state for themselves. The East Bankers of Jordan know that the West Bankers, the Palestinians, will outnumber them someday and Jordan will become either part or the whole of Palestine.

In other words, Israel’s foreign minister is the one man in the Middle East who is publicly discussing an issue that everyone else in the region is also confronting in the wake of the Iraqi war – internal sectarian conflict where one side threatens to topple the political order. For example, despite the rhetoric of resistance, Hezbollah’s war with Israel on behalf of Iran and Syria that threatens to destroy the Lebanese state is no less treason than Azmi Bishara’s selling information to Damascus. The Arab regimes, regardless of their public criticism of the loyalty oath and Lieberman, are watching closely, because Israel’s treatment of the issue may well shape how they deal with their own sectarian issues – or at least we can hope they learn from Jerusalem rather than Saddam, who laid waste to Iraqi Shia and Kurds.

The choice the Israelis face is maybe not so tough, after all. And even if it is tough, so what? What Frenchman thinks that it is inherently part of his national identity to be fearful of war with Germany? And yet for reasons of geography, ethnicity, and history, it has been so. It would be nice if Palestinians wanted to make peace with Israel on terms that allowed for Israel’s secure existence as a Jewish state, but the recent historical record and regional dynamics offer little assurance that such a blessed day is coming anytime soon. If Zionism must not allow for transferring Arabs or ruling over them, then is it about Jews picking up and leaving when a Jewish state in the Middle East doesn’t look exactly like local democracy in Vermont? Based on the historical evidence, the Jews of Israel will continue to try their hardest to appease U.S. policymakers – hopefully led by those, like Avigdor Lieberman, who understand what it takes to maintain their national existence in the region where they have made their home.

(Lee Smith is a subscriber to this mailing list.)


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.