By MICHAEL B. OREN
Published: October 13, 2010NEARLY 63 years after the United Nations recognized the right of the Jewish people to independence in their homeland - and more than 62 years since Israel's creation - the Palestinians are still denying the Jewish nature of the state. "Israel can name itself whatever it wants," said the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, while, according to the newspaper Haaretz, his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said that the Palestinian Authority will never recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Back in 1948, opposition to the legitimacy of a Jewish state ignited a war. Today it threatens peace.
Mr. Abbas and Mr. Erekat were responding to the call by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, enabling his government to consider extending the moratorium on West Bank construction. "Such a step by the Palestinian Authority would be a confidence-building measure," Mr. Netanyahu explained, noting that Israel was not demanding recognition as a prerequisite for direct talks. It would "open a new horizon of hope as well as trust among broad parts of the Israeli public."
Why should it matter whether the Palestinians or any other people recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people? Indeed, Israel never sought similar acknowledgment in its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. Some analysts have suggested that Mr. Netanyahu is merely making a tactical demand that will block any chance for the peace they claim he does not really want.
Affirmation of Israel's Jewishness, however, is the very foundation of peace, its DNA. Just as Israel recognizes the existence of a Palestinian people with an inalienable right to self-determination in its homeland, so, too, must the Palestinians accede to the Jewish people's 3,000-year connection to our homeland and our right to sovereignty there. This mutual acceptance is essential if both peoples are to live side by side in two states in genuine and lasting peace.
So why won't the Palestinians reciprocate? After all, the Jewish right to statehood is a tenet of international law. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 called for the creation of "a national home for the Jewish people" in the land then known as Palestine and, in 1922, the League of Nations cited the "historical connection of the Jewish people" to that country as "the grounds for reconstituting their national home." In 1947, the United Nations authorized the establishment of "an independent Jewish state," and recently, while addressing the General Assembly, President Obama proclaimed Israel as "the historic homeland of the Jewish people." Why, then, can't the Palestinians simply say "Israel is the Jewish state"?
The reason, perhaps, is that so much of Palestinian identity as a people has coalesced around denying that same status to Jews. "I will not allow it to be written of me that I have ... confirmed the existence of the so-called Temple beneath the Mount," Yasir Arafat told President Bill Clinton in 2000.
For Palestinians, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state also means accepting that the millions of them residing in Arab countries would be resettled within a future Palestinian state and not within Israel, which their numbers would transform into a Palestinian state in all but name. Reconciling with the Jewish state means that the two-state solution is not a two-stage solution leading, as many Palestinians hope, to Israel's dissolution.
Which is precisely why Israelis seek the basic reassurance that the Palestinian Authority is ready to accept our state to accept us. Israelis need to know that further concessions would not render us more vulnerable to terrorism and susceptible to unending demands. Though recognition of Israel as the Jewish state would not shield us from further assaults or pressure, it would prove that the Palestinians are serious about peace.
The core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the refusal to recognize Jews as a people, indigenous to the region and endowed with the right to self-government. Criticism of Israeli policies often serves to obscure this fact, and peace continues to elude us. By urging the Palestinians to recognize us as their permanent and legitimate neighbors, Prime Minister Netanyahu is pointing the way out of the current impasse: he is identifying the only path to co-existence.
Michael B. Oren is Israel's ambassador to the United States.