By Joharah Baker
As Israel jubilantly celebrates 61 years of existence, the Palestinians continue to wonder what the future holds for them. Their dream of a two-state solution seems to wane with each passing day as Israel continues nonstop in creating more facts on the ground that serve to make this dream virtually impossible. Still, the Palestinian leadership has stuck to its guns, despite the constant obstacles and impasses, insisting that it will live side by side with Israel.
As if this were not a tough enough goal to reach, new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is making it even tougher. Palestinians, he says, must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, for any kind of “peace talks” to proceed. Otherwise, no deal.
President Mahmoud Abbas was quick, efficient and to the point in his response. “It is not my job to give a description of the state. Name yourself the Hebrew Socialist Republic — it is none of my business,” he said on April 27 in Ramallah. “I do not accept it.”
There are a multitude of layers and underlying intentions behind this argument which will be difficult to map out in such a confined space. But let us suffice with some of the most crucial points why Netanyahu has demanded this and equally, why the Palestinians will hear nothing of it.
Before, however, one thing should be very clear. Prime Minister Netanyahu has given no illusions as to his intentions to back or help create a Palestinian state. He has always been against any sovereign Palestinian political entity and unlike many of his so-called left-wing predecessors, he is not afraid to say so. Since taking office, Netanyahu has evaded any clear reference to a Palestinian state, rather saying he would “work for peace” or provide an economic plan for the Palestinians as a solution. Basically, Netanyahu, who sat in the premier’s office back in 1996, is espousing the same approach towards his unwanted neighbors. Placate them with economic enticements and put off any political aspirations until there is nothing left to negotiate over.
Now that he is back in the hot seat, Netanyahu needs some new stalling methods. Historically, Israel has to answer to the United States, at least for diplomacy’s sake and President Barack Obama is not exactly George W. Bush. Regardless of whether Obama will be able to make a significant difference in the badly damaged peace process here, he is certainly making a point of engaging himself in the conflict. Practically from day one, he dispatched George Mitchell to the region as his special envoy to the Middle East and now he is bringing the region’s leaders to Washington next month to discuss his “gestures plan”. So, if nothing else, Netanyahu will have to be creative in finding ways not to jump on the American bandwagon of inclusion.
Hence, the Jewish state prerequisite. By demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jews, Netanyahu is effectively canceling out any right of return for Palestinian refugees to their original homes from which they were expelled in 1948. Netanyahu, like all Israeli leaders is well aware that this is one of the Palestinians’ basic demands, which has also become one of the thorniest sticking points in their bilateral negotiations. So, if he can extract this recognition from the Palestinians, he has scored a major achievement for Israel in any final settlement with us.
This, of course, is exactly the reason the Palestinians will not accept it. President Abbas was right to nip it in the bud from the start because even the slightest negotiation over this point would have watered down Palestinian demands for the right of return, a right which is enshrined in international law. Historically Israel has always rejected the right of return because of its ramifications on the Jewish character of Israel even though it is the longest standing refugee problem to date.
Somehow, Israel has nonetheless, sold its case to the world. The Jews needed a homeland after the horrors of the Holocaust and their long history of persecution, pogroms and exclusion. They already had religious and spiritual ties to the country and Jews had begun to settle in the land as early as the turn of the century. Palestine, it seemed, was the perfect solution for the Jews. Hence, Zionism was born.
Amid all of these emotional justifications for why Palestine should become an exclusive homeland for the Jews, the world tends to forget that the Palestinians were innocent of all of the above. Those who tilled the land for decades, handing it down to their sons for generations, were uninvolved in Hitler’s sinister plan put ultimately paid the price for the solution, which meant thousands of Palestinians were massacred at the hands of Jewish gangs and hundreds of thousands more expelled from their homes forever.
This Holocaust/Palestine connection has become so inextricable from today’s political realities that even Israelis are paying the price for questioning it. Just the other day, an Israeli docent at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum was fired because he dared to mention the massacre of Deir Yassin on one of his guided tours. "The Holocaust moved us to establish a Jewish state and the Palestinian nation’s trauma is moving it to seek self-determination, identity, land and dignity, just as Zionism sought these things," he said. According to the museum’s position, “The Holocaust cannot be compared to any other event.”
So, when Netanyahu demands that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state, he is linking it with a deep and emotionally charged history that we will always refuse to accept responsibility for, especially since Israel refuses to accept responsibility for the plight of Palestinian refugees. Palestinians have no interest in equating their plight with that of the Jews in WWII. That is their history, their suffering, which any human being would sympathize with given its magnitude. That does not mean, however, that Israel can deny our history and our suffering, which was directly created as a result of the establishment of this self-proclaimed Jewish state. It seems only fair that before Netanyahu asks the Palestinians to recognize his country’s character, Israel should first put right the injustices it meted out against an innocent population 61 years ago. Doesn’t Israel demand this very thing from the rest of the world?
– Joharah Baker is a writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org)