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A new law in Israel complicates future peace talks. Here’s why.

- August 15, 2018
People are seen through a banner showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest against the Israel Jewish nation bill July 30 in Tel Aviv. (Oded Balilty/AP)

On July 19, after years of contentious debate, Israel’s Knesset approved a new Basic Law defining the State of Israel unequivocally as “the national home of the Jewish People.” In the weeks since its passage, this “nation-state law” has been hailed by its supporters as a major historical breakthrough, by Israel’s secular left and Arab minority as a tragedy, and by some scholars as a largely symbolic and inconsequential action.

Much of the public debate over the law hinges on how it will affect the delicate balance Israel has long straddled as a Jewish and democratic state, and whether its uncertain application will firmly alter this balance at the expense of political and social equality.

But how Israel defines itself in law won’t just matter for Israeli citizens — it is also poised to play a significant role in any future negotiations over the creation of a Palestinian state. To understand why, we need to revisit the last decade of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, in which Israel’s status as a Jewish state controversially, and uncharacteristically, took center stage.

Recognition of Israel as a ‘Jewish state’

In every major speech on the conflict since his return to power in 2009, and in every major round of negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed Palestinian leaders to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” Netanyahu made clear that the success of final status negotiations depended, ultimately, on the willingness of Palestinians to “say those words to our people and to their people.”

The Palestinian Authority already recognizes the state of Israel, a step Yasser Arafat, then chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman, took two decades earlier during the Oslo process. This new demand now asked whether Palestinians were willing to go one step further and also recognize what kind of state Israel was. While Israeli negotiators did raise the Jewish state issue during the 2007 Annapolis peace conference, it only became a fixture of Israeli-Palestinian talks two years later after Barack Obama’s and Netanyahu’s joint ascent to power. In the years since, Netanyahu and his allies in government and the media shifted focus to the Jewish state issue as Obama ratcheted up his pressure on Israel to halt settlement growth and return to peace negotiations.

Why Palestinians object to the demand

Palestinians consistently rejected Netanyahu’s demand on both symbolic and consequentialist grounds. Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would threaten their historical narrative, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas argued, doing harm to Palestinian identity. At the strategic level, accepting Israel as a Jewish state would risk harming the status of Israel’s Arab minority, while negating the Palestinians’ own demand for a right of return in a final status agreement.

The increased frequency of Netanyahu’s demand therefore brought more frequent public rejections from Abbas and his deputies. After initially dismissing the gambit as nonsensical, over time Palestinian leaders bought into Netanyahu’s symbolic terms — accepting that Jewish state recognition did matter, and therefore should be opposed.

Abbas had declared, early in Netanyahu’s tenure, that it was not his “job to give a description of the state.” “Name yourself the Hebrew Socialist Republic,” Abbas added “it is none of my business.” Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat repeated this thinking: “If you want to call yourself the biblical, united, eternal, holy, milk and honey land of Jewish Israel, submit your name to the U.N. … It’s unbelievable to ask Palestinians.”

But this dismissive rhetoric did not last. By refusing to recognize Israel in Netanyahu’s terms and grounding this refusal in the language of Palestinian identity and interests, Abbas and Erekat effectively declared that how Israel defined itself was their business — pushing the recognition dispute forward. This cycle of demand and rejection created a self-fulfilling prophecy, as both right-wing and left-wing voices in the Israeli press concluded that if Jewish state recognition was not initially necessary, it had become so retroactively through the Palestinians’ own refusal to offer it.

How the politics of recognition interacted with negotiations

In this environment, both sides could benefit from the shifted focus. It became easy for Netanyahu to announce, in 2010, for example, that he was willing to extend an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank if Abbas was first willing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Abbas refused recognition, Israel resumed building, and both sides were given political cover as the first round of Obama-era talks collapsed around them. Netanyahu and his supporters used these denials to their advantage, both to displace blame for the repeated failure of negotiations and to rein in Israel’s identity domestically.

The two tracks were clearly connected as failure to secure Jewish state recognition in the diplomatic realm worked to justify the domestic process that eventually made its way through the Knesset. It was necessary to anchor Israel’s status as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” in law, Netanyahu said in 2014, precisely because “as we have seen recently, there are those who do not recognize this natural right.” “A clear Israeli law will be significant in diplomacy,” Likud Beytenu coalition chairman Yariv Levin explained in 2014. “It’ll show our insistence that we are a Jewish state.”

Rather than suggest Israel recognizing itself as a Jewish state through this Basic Law will temper the need to acquire this recognition externally, the reverse is almost certainly true. The former will probably embolden the latter. If past talks are any indication, both sides will continue to be trapped by the intractability of this rhetoric. Palestinians who have presented Jewish state recognition as an existential threat to their own core narrative and identity will find it exceedingly hard to offer this recognition, as a feature of final status negotiations. Israelis who are increasingly convinced that securing Jewish state recognition is necessary for a two-state solution to deliver “two states for two peoples” will find it difficult to concede the point. This shift toward recognition of Israel as a Jewish state has therefore made a negotiated agreement even less likely.

Joshua Freedman is a PhD candidate in the department of political science at Northwestern University. He tweets at @josh_free.