Recognition Matters After All

My friend and colleague Steve Lear is currently involved in a very engaging discussion on Facebook with Palestinian non-violent activist Sami Awad. As part of that discussion, some questions arose around whether it is valid for Israel to ask to be recognized as a Jewish state by the Palestinians, and why the Palestinians should ever do such a thing. These are my thoughts in response to those questions.
I often have the sense that there is a certain level of misunderstanding when the question of “recognizing Israel as a Jewish state” comes up.
I feel that there is a sense that this means saying that Israel should have a religiously-Jewish-only population. Which is certainly objectionable – we don’t even need to discuss why.
The thing is – I don’t think that’s what is being meant at all. And that misunderstanding is where the issue comes from.
Obviously, if we were to say that Israel should have a Jewish-only population, that would mean it could not continue to have an Arab population. However, this is certainly not the case. Israel has about a 20% non-Jewish (largely Arab) population today, and certainly intends to continue to have those citizens live in Israel (crazy people’s crazy ideas aside). So the refugee question isn’t really the point here, either.
Instead, I think the desire for public recognition as the Jewish state means something different. Specifically, I think it stems from 2 concerns. The first is around the recognition of Israel at all. Israel has not been recognized as a state by the majority of Arab states. This creates certain problems in a negotiation. Certainly I agree that pre-conditions are not quite appropriate in a negotiating situation. Sure – why give things up in advance? However, if you don’t even recognize that your negotiating partner exists – that’s not really about “giving in,” is it? You can’t even really negotiate with him if he doesn’t exist as an entity in your mind. How valid would any promises given be? Whom did you give them to? Whom are you talking to in the first place? If the parties refuse to recognize each other, it makes it very easy for them both to later throw out anything agreed to, saying that they did not really recognize each other’s validity as a negotiating partner. So just as it is important for Israel to recognize the Palestinian people as a group before negotiating with them (otherwise, whom are you negotiating with?), likewise, it is important for the Palestinian partner to recognize Israel as a valid entity, so it, too, can make promises to an actual recognized entity. I can’t promise you a piece of my donut if I claim you don’t exist, can I? So I feel that the ability to say “you know what, yes, I recognize you as the state of Israel, which I am negotiating with” is important at the outset of any good-faith negotiations. It is not a thing you might later consent to do in exchange for some favor or concession. Otherwise, it looks a bit like the “neener-neener-I-can’t-hear-you!” of small, petulant children.
The second concern actually comes closer to the main issue regarding the character of the state – the question of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. I think people get very caught up in reading that statement as speaking of a religious question. I do not believe that this is correct. There is a problem with Jewish being a reference to both a religious and an ethic/national group. I acknowledge this naming problem, but we’ll just have to live with it for the moment. In this case, however, I think the intent is to say “we recognize that this state exists, which is the state of the Jews,” meaning Jews as an ethnic/national group. This would be similar to saying “I recognize that Ireland exists, as a state of Irish people” or “I recognize Italy as a state of Italians.” Are all of Italy’s residents ethnic/historical Italians? No. But the majority is, and it is understood as a nation-state of Italians (Catholic or otherwise).
The reason this is important is again a question of what the negotiation means. If we agree that the negotiations are based on the idea that yes, there is an Israel here, and we are negotiating how and precisely where and whether the Palestinians will have their own state in the West Bank and Gaza – while leaving the rest of Israeli territory to the Israelis – then the recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a state of the Jews is very important to that negotiation. Essentially, this would be similar to, say, a negotiation between Great Britain and Ireland over the state of Northern Ireland. Great Britain would say “yes, we recognize there is an Ireland, which is a state of the Irish, and it is generally over there. Now let’s discuss where exactly the borders of Ireland vs. Great Britain will lie, and what the details will look like.” Nobody would be discussing the rest of Ireland, and whether it should exist at all (or be populated largely by Irish people). Netanyahu has already said that he supports the creation of a Palestinian state, and recognized that it will be created – now the details need to be ironed out. However, it is important to make it clear that we are discussing the details of what that state will look like – not the entire existence of Israel. Saying that the Palestinians recognize the existence of Israel as a Jewish state will mean that yes, they are now willing to publicly accept that Israel will continue to exist, in this area, and want to discuss where exactly their state will be located – in the West Bank and Gaza. Not in the rest of Israel. Since this has definitely been an issue in the past, this is a valid concern for the Israelis. Otherwise, if the Palestinians do not recognize any right that Jews might have to have any state in the area (as, for instance, Hamas does not), there can be every worry that Israel may negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and then hear “OK, great, now we want the rest of our land back, since we think the whole thing is our land, and we have a right to it.”
This is an enormous sticking point for the Israelis. So while it is absolutely correct that any nation can declare its own existence as it likes, having your neighbors acknowledge the validity of your existence gives you a lot more confidence that they will not attempt to come back and take everything you have later on, saying that they never recognized it as yours in the first place.

Full Disclosure: I am a speaker on Israel and the Middle East for the JCRC of Minnesota and the Dakotas along with Steve Lear. I have never met or spoken with Sami Awad.
[Image: uhuru1701.  Editor’s note: It’s a bit provocative, no? The right one to use? Hmmm…Would love your thoughts.]