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One of Israel’s highest priorities in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA) is recognition by the PA and Arab states as a “Jewish state.” The purpose of this demand is to ensure a lasting peace with Israel as it exists rather than some formal declaration which would thereafter be subverted in every possible way.
Remember, after all, that the Middle East is full of countries which, when you recognize them, you accept their self-definition. Here are some of the names of countries which you accept when you recognize them: The Arab Republic of Egypt, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Islamic Republic of Iran, or even—as in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan or Saudi Arabia—designating them as being under the rule of a single family.
The Palestinian Authority’s constitution for a Palestinian state—which will probably have the word “Arab” and possibly “Islamic” in its name—states that country is Arab in nationality and that the official religion is Islam.
But the most important reason is to counter various tricks like that of the “Right of Return,” which is based on a false reading of a single non-binding UN document that the Palestinians and Arabs rejected more than fifty years ago. Note that this demand—that all Palestinians who ever lived in what is now Israel or are descendants of such people—can come and live in Israel. Naturally, there first goal would be to destroy that country and the result would be horrible violence, bloodshed, and instability.
Don’t believe anyone who tells you this isn’t a serious demand on the PA’s part or that they will—as they tell credible people in private—not really implement it once Israel promises to let them do it. It is an absolutely central demand and if any Palestinian leader dared give it up publicly his life span—politically at least—would be very limited.
Now, however, Professor Shlomo Avineri, possibly Israel’s greatest public intellectual at present, has given a good explanation as to why recognition as a Jewish state is so important for Israel:
“Israel has never called into question the existence of the Egyptian political entity. On the other hand, the Palestinians, through their rejection of the  UN Partition Plan, refused to recognize the Jewish state and embarked on a war to destroy it. This is, after all, the root of the conflict. Indeed, the Palestinian narrative is based on the rejection of the existence of a Jewish nation-state in any part of the territory they call Palestine.
“If you declared war against the Jewish state, does not the signing of a peace treaty with that state obligate you to accept it? This does not mean the Palestinians are asked to accept the Zionist narrative, but it is incumbent upon them to alter their narrative, which rules out the existence of a Jewish state.
“This is exactly what Israel did at Camp David and Oslo. Under the terms of binding international agreements, Israel committed itself to recognizing “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian Arab nation.” [Prime Minister] Menachem Begin was the first to do this. This is not tantamount to relinquishing the Zionist narrative; it is a willingness to accept the legitimacy of a competing narrative and to seek a compromise. We only ask of the Palestinians that which we ourselves have done in the past.”
Note by the way something extremely important: To accept the existence of a Palestinian Arab state, Israel or Zionist ideology does not have to make any change whatsoever in its world view. It is not exclusionary. Palestinian nationalism is. For it to accept the existence of Israel–in real terms or even by signing a final peace treaty–requires a political and intellectual revolution.
And one of the ways you know peace is not near is that this revolution has barely begun. Examine Palestinian media, education, the statements (in Arabic) of leaders, mosque sermons, and so on, and you find few hints that there is acceptance of Israel’s long-term, much less permanent, existence. Of course, Hamas makes little secret of its view on the subject.
Fatah’s view is more complex. In private, some of its leaders know they cannot defeat Israel but won’t say so publicly and hope that a long-term battle of attrition will do what force of arms cannot.
Avineri’s last point is particularly important: Israel has already recognized the Palestinians as an Arab people who will, of course, have an “Arab state.” Remember that it is on this very basis that the Palestinians will always demand that every Jewish settler must be removed from their territory.
A two-state solution is supposed to mean: Two states for two peoples. That is the best solution, though of course this doesn’t mean there will be a solution for a very long time, a distinction many people seem not to understand.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org. To see or subscribe to his blog, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com/.