Will Israeli-Palestinian peace come down to whether the Palestinians will acknowledge that Israel is “a Jewish state”? And if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t say those three little words, will we see the current negotiations end without a resolution?
In his defense, Abbas says that he recognizes Israel; that his predecessor, Yassir Ara-fat, already recognized Israel as a Jewish state; and that the 1988 PLO Declaration of Independence speaks of a Jewish state next to a Palestinian one. So why do the three words stick in the throat of the Palestinian leader?
At his White House visit this week Abbas spoke of the urgency of the peace process, warning that “time is not on our side. … We hope that we would be able to seize this opportunity to achieve a lasting peace.” So far so good. But why not seize the opportunity to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, as the original U.N. partition plan called it? Especially when Abbas is calling on Israel to release more Palestinian prisoners as agreed this month “because this will give a very solid impression about the seriousness of these efforts to achieve peace,” why not simply acknowledge Israel’s fundamental Jewish identity?
All parties to any negotiation know that confidence-building measures go both ways. By recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, Abbas would give up nothing tangible, while Israel will have taken a calculated risk to its security with the series of prisoner releases. Recognition would be a tremendous confidence boost. It would be a nod to the “Jewish soul” in “Hatikvah.” It would be an admission of what has become known as the “Zionist narrative” — that Jews have always lived in the land and are not interlopers or colonialists. And for the Palestinians and the Arabs to work past the Jewish state mental block, it would surely go a long way to help promote peace and reconciliation between the two peoples.
For now, Abbas seems dead set against Jewish state recognition. We hope that as President Obama did so very publicly before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent Washington visit, he at least privately made clear to Abbas the serious problems the Palestinians will face if he lets these talks fail: a loss of Western financial support and obstruction of any unilateral Palestinian moves at the U.N. There is plenty of pressure Washington can bring to bear on the Palestinian Authority. And maybe Washington has done so behind closed doors. All we know is that it has so far failed to do so publicly.
Whether Abbas is prepared to say the three little words at this time or not, we believe the peace talks should continue. And we urge the Obama administration to do all it can to assure that they do. Without peace talks there will be no possibility of resolution. By continuing, the two sides can build trust, understanding and a relationship. Something may actually come from that.