A breakthrough on mutual recognition? Read carefully

Aaron Zucker
on December 19, 2013

By Aaron Zucker

John Kerry has visited Israel nine times this year in his drive for Middle East peace, but it was only this month that the secretary of state first called explicitly for “a peace that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.

The core demand by Prime Minister Netanyahu had previously gone unmentioned by Kerry in his frequent remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But again in his must-watch address to the annual Saban Forum, he listed among the central issues of the peace talks the Israeli need for “recognition… as the homeland of the Jewish people.”

This addition did not go unnoticed. Could a compromise be in the works? Along with the issue of security–which has already consumed much of the secretary’s time–Kerry appeared to be tackling head-on Netanyahu’s cardinal demand of the negotiations.

Since his landmark 2009 address at Bar Ilan University, the prime minister has conditioned his endorsement of a Palestinian state on a parallel Palestinian recognition of “the right of the Jewish People to its own state in its historical homeland.” He refers to it as the “root of the conflict” and the “minimal requirement for peace.” Perhaps most importantly, Netanyahu sees recognition as a way to officially limit the Palestinian right of return, which, if fully exercised, could overrun Israel’s Jewish majority in a flood of refugees.

Before Netanyahu, no Israeli leader had voiced such a demand. No other country had been asked to formally recognize Israel’s Jewish character, not even Egypt and Jordan. Given that the Palestinians already recognized “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security” decades ago and any peace agreement would mark an official end of conflict and claims, it was not clear why more should be required.

For those reasons, Palestinian leaders have publicly dismissed the demand, with President Abbas joking that Israel can call itself anything that it wants, even “the Hebrew Socialist Republic–it is none of my business,” he said.

Some prominent Israelis agree. As Finance Minister Yair Lapid has said, “My father didn’t come to Haifa from the Budapest ghetto in order to get recognition from Abu Mazen.” Not even Israelis can seem to decide what it means to be a Jewish state. Why should it matter how others refer to it?

Before the Kerry initiative kicked off in July, Netanyahu’s insistence on the matter led some to see it simply as another stumbling block placed in the way of negotiations. Yet five months into the talks, the prime minister has only increased the frequency and fervor with which he speaks of recognition, a clear signal that the demand is not going away. Any peace agreement will have to resolve the issue directly.

The good news is that Netanyahu doesn’t seem to be wedded to any specific wording of the recognition. In his Saban speech, he called for Palestinians to recognize the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” the “right of the Jewish people to national self-determination” and to renounce “national claims on the Jewish state.” Both he and Kerry have also urged recognition of the “homeland” of the Jewish people. That leaves a lot of room for compromise.

And if the negotiating teams find a way to overcome their differences on this issue, a recent survey suggests that their people can too. The poll showed that like their prime minister, Israelis are flexible when it comes to the formulation of recognition, while Palestinians could accept certain versions in a comprehensive peace deal.

We don’t know what is being debated behind closed doors. But given that Netanyahu is unlikely to advance a peace accord that does not in some way address the issue of recognition, Kerry’s rhetoric is an important sign that he’s working toward its resolution. Hopefully, he can fashion a formula that both sides can accept.

Aaron Zucker is a communications and media assistant at J Street.