Does Israel need formal Palestinian recognition for it to be a Jewish state?
The short answer is, naturally, no. Israel is "a Jewish and democratic State" with or without Palestinian recognition.
The long answer, is, well, longer. And it begins with the contention – oh, so Jewish – that this isn't the right question. No, Israel doesn't need Palestinian recognition for it to be Jewish, but it might need such recognition for it to agree to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Might need – because there is no "yes" or "no" answer to the question of need. It all depends on one's general take on the nature of Israel and Palestine, on the core issues preventing Israelis and Palestinians from getting to a resolution of their conflict, and on the best way forward to resolve the conflict. It also depends, to a large extent, on one's view of the two leaders that are leading the negotiations: Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas.
Last Friday, the US State Department made it clear that the US doesn't see the recognition of a "Jewish state" as a precondition for further talks. And while some Israelis seemed to be upset by this position, it was hardly a surprising one and is also quite reasonable. Reading the exchange of questions and answers that prompted the headlines about the US' position, it is easy to see that what State is trying to do is not to present a new formulation for the talks but rather to avoid one – and to avoid a crisis over this issue. It wants to say as little as possible and to commit to as little as possible at this stage. Take a look:
QUESTION:…will you insist in this framework agreement that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state?
MS. [Jen] PSAKI [State spokesperson]: … our position, as you know, has been for quite some time… that Israel is the Jewish – that Israel is a Jewish state. That doesn’t reflect, of course, what the parties are going to agree to.
MS. PSAKI: That’s our view. So I’m not going to get ahead of where we are. It’s not about demands. The parties have to agree to what will be in a framework and what will be a part of the path forward for negotiations.
QUESTION: … My question to you is: Why the Palestinians are obligated to recognize Israel as a Jewish state when all the other states that have relations with Israel and have recognized Israel since day one did not do the same?
MS. PSAKI: No one is talking about an obligation. We’re talking about a discussion and what’s being compromised as part of a discussion on a framework for negotiations.
QUESTION: Right. Okay. So you don’t see this as a precondition, then?
MS. PSAKI: I think I’m done with your line of questioning.
QUESTION: Do you see it as a precondition?
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you see it as a precondition?
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead. I think we’re moving on. Go ahead.
Last week, Palestinian commentator Ali Jarbawi wrote an interesting article in the New York Times in which he explained why recognition of a Jewish State is problematic. "What exactly does the Jewish nature of the Israeli state mean?" he asks in the article. It is worth noting that Israel doesn't have an exact answer to such questions. What does it mean? It means different things to different people, Israelis and non-Israelis. But is that really a reason for the Palestinians to refuse recognizing Israel as a Jewish State?
As much as the debate about the meaning of "Jewish" and the meaning of "recognition" is interesting, the story is not about the lawyerly – or philosophical – intricacies of mutual recognition. The story of the Jewish State, like so many others, is one about mutual mistrust. Israel – Israelis – don't really believe that the Palestinians want to "end the conflict".
So, while President Obama seems to be satisfied with what he has been seeing from Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas ("President Abbas is sincere about his willingness to recognize Israel and its right to exist, to recognize Israel’s legitimate security needs, to shun violence"), Israelis are still suspicious of him. As Minister Naftali Bennett said: "As a nation-state, Israel is the Jewish nation-state. So if we don't get that recognition from the Palestinians, essentially, they're saying give us our own state and now we want half of your state. Well, it would be one and a half Palestinian states and only half a Jewish state. And they're not willing to recognize that". In other words: if you trust Abbas to be "sincere" (or if you don't really care about Israel remaining "a Jewish state") you can place you bar lower. If you don't, you'd want a commitment that goes beyond the vague language of recognizing "Israel" – language that might imply what Bennett reads into it.
For the Palestinians, it is the same story. A story of mistrust – in fact, double mistrust. First, they believe it is all a manipulative trick by Netanyahu to avoid the resolution of the conflict. They believe that he inserted the "Jewish" demand as a wedge issue. So they have no trust in him being sincere about this demand and about peace in general. Second, as they think about Israel – by law "a Jewish and democratic State", not just a "Jewish State" – they interpret its desire to be recognized as Jewish in the worst possible way. They have no trust in Israel's desire to be "democratic" no less than it wants to be "Jewish".
The weak part in Israel's argument is easy to identify: you don't ask a neighbor to define your own political identity – this is for Israelis to do, not Palestinians. And a refusal on their part to recognize Israel as "Jewish" is hardly a good excuse for perpetuating the occupation and keeping a large population devoid of political rights.
The weak part in the Palestinians' argument is also easy to identify: that they make such a big deal out of it makes it easy to believe that their ultimate goal is for Israel not to be a Jewish State. That they don't want a resolution to the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine.
What you might hear from Americans that are working on this issue is simple: it's resolvable. They believe – and some Israelis also share this belief – that in the final round of negotiations, when all other issues are resolved, Abbas is going to come around to accepting Israel as a "Jewish State" (or a similar satisfactory formulation). That is one reason why the State Department doesn't currently want to focus on this issue – which is symbolically significant, but one which they believe isn't going to be the real obstacle for final agreement.
I tend not to rely on such theories. I tend to have more faith in what Abbas says than in the things people who are not Abbas tell me about his supposedly real position. I tend to remember that such promises about flexibility in the final push for peace have the habit of proving to be wrong. That is to say, I have my own issues of mistrust.