The problem facing the Palestinian leadership,
as they strive to bring the millions living in the occupied territories some
small relief from their collective suffering, reduces to a matter of a few words.
Like a naughty child who has only to say "sorry" to be released from
his room, the Hamas government need only say "We recognize Israel"
and supposedly aid and international goodwill will wash over the West Bank and
That, at least, was the gist of Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert's recent
speech during a visit to the Negev, when he suggested that his country's hand
was stretched out across the sands towards the starving masses of Gaza –
if only Hamas would repent. "recognize us and we are ready to talk about
peace" was the implication.
Certainly the Palestinian people have been viciously punished for making their
democratic choice early this year to elect a Hamas government that Israel and
the Western powers disapprove of:
The magic words "We recognize you" could end all this suffering.
So why did their prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, vow last week never to utter
them? Is Hamas so filled with hatred and loathing for Israel as a Jewish state
that it cannot make such a simple statement of good intent?
It is easy to forget that, though conditions have dramatically deteriorated
of late, the Palestinians' problems did not start with the election of Hamas.
Israel's occupation is four decades old, and no Palestinian leader has ever
been able to extract from Israel a promise of real statehood in all of the occupied
territories: not the mukhtars, the largely compliant local leaders, who for
decades were the only representatives allowed to speak on behalf of the Palestinians
after the national leadership was expelled; not the Palestinian Authority under
the secular leadership of Yasser Arafat, who returned to the occupied territories
in the mid-1990s after the PLO had recognized Israel; not the leadership of
his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, the "moderate" who first called for
an end to the armed intifada; and now not the leaders of Hamas, even though
they have repeatedly called for a long-term truce (hudna) as the first step
in building confidence.
Similarly, few Palestinians doubt that Israel will continue to entrench the
occupation – just as it did during the supposed peacemaking years of Oslo,
when the number of Jewish settlers doubled in the occupied territories –
even if Hamas is ousted and a government of national unity, of technocrats or
even of Fatah takes its place.
There is far more at stake for Israel in winning this little concession from
Hamas than most observers appreciate. A statement saying that Hamas recognized
Israel would do much more than meet Israel's precondition for talks; it would
mean that Hamas had walked into the same trap that was set earlier for Arafat
and Fatah. That trap is designed to ensure that any peaceful solution to the
conflict is impossible.
It achieves this end in two ways.
First, as has already been understood, at least by those paying attention,
Hamas' recognition of Israel's "right to exist" would effectively
signify that the Palestinian government was publicly abandoning its own goal
of struggling to create a viable Palestinian state.
That is because Israel refuses to demarcate its own future borders, leaving
it an open question what it considers to be the extent of "its existence"
it is demanding Hamas recognize. We do know that no one in the Israeli leadership
is talking about a return to Israel's borders that existed before the 1967 war,
or probably anything close to it.
Without a return to those pre-1967 borders (plus a substantial injection of
goodwill from Israel in ensuring unhindered passage between Gaza and the West
Bank) no possibility exists of a viable Palestinian state ever emerging.
And no goodwill, of course, will be forthcoming. Every Israeli leader has
refused to recognize the Palestinians, first as a people and now as a nation.
And in the West's typically hypocritical fashion when dealing with the Palestinians,
no one has ever suggested that Israel commit to such recognition.
In fact, Israeli governments have glorified in their refusal to extend the
same recognition to the Palestinians that they demand from them. Famously Golda
Meir, a Labor prime minister, said that the Palestinians did not exist, adding
in 1971 that Israel's "borders are determined by where Jews live, not where
there is a line on a map." At the same time she ordered that the Green
Line, Israel's border until the 1967 war, be erased from all official maps.
That legacy hit the headlines last week when the dovish education minister,
Yuli Tamir, caused a storm by issuing a directive that the Green Line should
be reintroduced in Israeli schoolbooks. There were widespread protests against
her "extreme leftist ideology" from politicians and rabbis.
According to Israeli educators, the chances of textbooks showing the Green
Line again – or dropping references to "Judea and Samaria," the
Biblical names for the West Bank, or including Arab towns on maps of Israel
– are close to nil. The private publishers who print the textbooks would
refuse to incur the extra costs of reprinting the maps, said Prof Yoram Bar-Gal,
head of geography at Haifa University.
Sensitive to the damage that the row might do to Israel's international image,
and aware that Tamir's directive is never likely to be implemented, Olmert agreed
in principle to the change. "There is nothing wrong with marking the Green
Line," he said. But, in a statement that made his agreement entirely hollow,
he added: "But there is an obligation to emphasize that the government's
position and public consensus rule out returning to the 1967 lines."
The second element to the trap is far less well understood. It explains the
strange formulation of words Israel uses in making its demand of Hamas. Israel
does not ask it simply to "recognize Israel," but to "recognize
Israel's right to exist." The difference is not a just matter of semantics.
The concept of a state having any rights is not only strange but alien to
international law. People have rights, not states. And that is precisely the
point: when Israel demands that its "right to exist" be recognized,
the subtext is that we are not speaking of recognition of Israel as a normal
nation state but as the state of a specific people, the Jews.
In demanding recognition of its right to exist, Israel is ensuring that the
Palestinians agree to Israel's character being set in stone as an exclusivist
Jewish state, one that privileges the rights of Jews over all other ethnic,
religious and national groups inside the same territory. The question of what
such a state entails is largely glossed over both by Israel and the West.
For most observers, it means simply that Israel must refuse to allow the return
of the millions of Palestinians languishing in refugee camps throughout the
region, whose former homes in Israel have now been appropriated for the benefit
of Jews. Were they allowed to come back, Israel's Jewish majority would be eroded
overnight and it could no longer claim to be a Jewish state, except in the same
sense that apartheid South Africa was a white state.
This conclusion is apparently accepted by Romano Prodi, Italy's prime minister,
after a round of lobbying in European capitals from Israel's telegenic foreign
minister, Tzipi Livni. According to the Jerusalem Post, Prodi is saying
in private that Israel should receive guarantees from the Palestinians that
its Jewish character will never be in doubt.
Israeli officials are cheering what they believe is the first crack in Europe's
support for international law and the rights of the refugees. "It's important
to get everyone on the same page on this one," an official told the Post.
But in truth the consequences of the Palestinian leadership recognising Israel
as a Jewish state run far deeper than the question of the future of the Palestinian
refugees. In my book Blood
and Religion, I set out these harsh consequences both for the Palestinians
in the occupied territories and for the million or so Palestinians who live
inside Israel as citizens, supposedly with the same rights as Jewish citizens.
My argument is that this need to maintain Israel's Jewish character at all
costs is actually the engine of its conflict with the Palestinians. No solution
is possible as long as Israel insists on privileging citizenship for Jews above
other groups, and on distorting the region's territorial and demographic realities
to ensure that the numbers continue to weigh in the Jews' favor.
Although ultimately the return of the refugees poses the biggest threat to
Israel's "existence," Israel has a far more pressing demographic concern:
the refusal by the Palestinians living in the West Bank to leave the parts of
that territory Israel covets (and which it knows by the Biblical names of Judea
Within a decade, the Palestinians in the occupied territories and the million
Palestinian citizens living inside Israel will outnumber Jews, both those living
in Israel and the settlers in the West Bank.
That was one of the chief reasons for the "disengagement" from Gaza:
Israel could claim that, even though it is still occupying the small piece of
land militarily, it was no longer responsible for the population there. By withdrawing
a few thousand settlers from the Strip, 1.4 million Gazans were instantly wiped
from the demographic score sheet.
But though the loss of Gaza has postponed for a few years the threat of a
Palestinian majority in the expanded state Israel desires, it has not magically
guaranteed Israel's continuing existence as a Jewish state. That is because
Israel's Palestinian citizens, though a minority comprising no more than fifth
of Israel's population, can potentially bring the whole house of cards tumbling
For the past decade they have been demanding that Israel be reformed from
a Jewish state, which systematically discriminates against them and denies their
Palestinian identity, into a "state of all its citizens," a liberal
democracy that would give all citizens, Jews and Palestinians, equal rights.
Israel has characterized the demand for a state of all its citizens as subversion
and treason, realizing that, were the Jewish state to become a liberal democracy,
Palestinian citizens could justifiably demand:
To prevent the first threat, Israel passed a flagrantly racist law in 2003
that makes it all but impossible for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to
bring a Palestinian spouse to Israel. For the time being, such couples have
little choice but to seek asylum abroad, if other countries will give them refuge.
But like the Gaza disengagement, this piece of legislation is a delaying tactic
rather than a solution to the problem of Israel's "existence." So
behind the scenes Israel has been formulating ideas that taken together would
remove large segments of Israel's Palestinian population from its borders and
strip any remaining "citizens" of their political rights – unless
they swear loyalty to a "Jewish and democratic state" and thereby
renounce their demand that Israel reform itself into a liberal democracy.
This is the bottom line for a Jewish state, just as it was for a white apartheid
South Africa: if we are to survive, then we must be able to do whatever it takes
to keep ourselves in power, even if it means systematically violating the human
rights of all those we rule over and who do not belong to our group.
Ultimately, the consequences of Israel being allowed to remain a Jewish state
will be felt by all of us, wherever we live – and not only because of the
fallout from the continuing and growing anger in the Arab and Muslim worlds
at the double standards applied by the West to the conflict between Israel and
Given Israel's view that its most pressing interest is not peace or regional
accommodation with its neighbors but the need to ensure a Jewish majority at
all costs to protect its "existence," Israel is likely to act in ways
that endanger regional and global stability.
A small taste of that was suggested in the role played by Israel's supporters
in Washington in making the case for the invasion of Iraq, and this summer in
Israel's assault on Lebanon. But it is most evident in its drumbeat of war against
Israel has been leading the attempts to characterize the Iranian regime as
profoundly anti-Semitic, and its presumed ambitions for nuclear weapons as directed
by the sole goal of wanting to "wipe Israel off the map" – a
calculatedly mischievous mistranslation of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's
Most observers have assumed that Israel is genuinely concerned for its safety
from nuclear attack, however implausible the idea that even the most fanatical
Muslim regime would, unprovoked, launch nuclear missiles against a small area
of land that contains some of Islam's holiest sites, in Jerusalem.
But in truth there is another reason why Israel is concerned about a nuclear-armed
Iran that has nothing to do with conventional ideas about safety.
Last month, Ephraim Sneh, one of Israel's most distinguished generals and
now Olmert's deputy defense minister, revealed that the government's primary
concern was not the threat posed by Ahmadinejad firing nuclear missiles at Israel
but the effect of Iran's possession of such weapons on Jews who expect Israel
to have a monopoly on the nuclear threat.
If Iran got such weapons, "Most Israelis would prefer not to live here;
most Jews would prefer not to come here with families, and Israelis who can
live abroad will ... I am afraid Ahmadinejad will be able to kill the Zionist
dream without pushing a button. That's why we must prevent this regime from
obtaining nuclear capability at all costs."
In other words, the Israeli government is considering either its own preemptive
strike on Iran or encouraging the United States to undertake such an attack
– despite the terrible consequences for global security – simply because
a nuclear-armed Iran might make Israel a less attractive place for Jews to live,
lead to increased emigration and tip the demographic balance in the Palestinians'
Regional and possibly global war may be triggered simply to ensure that Israel's
"existence" as a state that offers exclusive privileges to Jews continues.
For all our sakes, we must hope that the Palestinians and their Hamas government
continue refusing to "recognize Israel's right to exist."