My Jewish state
LONDON — A year ends, another begins, time for reminiscences and resolutions, regret and hope, best-of and worst-of lists, confessions and crystal-ball gazing — most of it pretty excruciating. It will take a nanosecond longer to scroll back to one’s year of birth. So it goes.
I am not going to gripe about brilliant Twitter. I have nothing new to say about Miley Cyrus. But I am going to make one prediction for 2014. It is that, for all John Kerry’s efforts, this will be another year in which peace is not reached in the Middle East. (And if I am wrong, I vow Sisyphean penance in eternity.)
Plenty of bad things have happened between Israelis and Palestinians of late. There has been a steady uptick in violence. Israel’s freeing of 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners was naturally greeted with joy in Ramallah, and by a wave of Israeli government tweets condemning the celebration of terrorists. Along with the release came word that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government will likely announce plans for 1,400 new housing units in the West Bank, just as Kerry arrives for his 10th peace-seeking visit. This has infuriated Palestinians. So, too, has an Israeli ministerial committee vote advancing legislation to annex settlements in the Jordan Valley. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the vote “finishes all that is called the peace process.” Such contemptuous characterization of a negotiation from a leading protagonist is ill-advised and bodes ill.
Then there is the rebounding Israel-is-a-Jewish-state bugbear: Netanyahu wants Palestinians to recognize his nation as such. He has recently called it “the real key to peace.” His argument is that this is the touchstone by which to judge whether Palestinians will accept “the Jewish state in any border” — whether, in other words, the Palestinian leadership would accept territorial compromise or is still set on reversal of 1948 and mass return to Haifa.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, says no; this “nyet” will endure. For Palestinians, such a form of recognition would amount to explicit acquiescence to second-class citizenship for the 1.6 million Arabs in Israel; undermine the rights of millions of Palestinian refugees; upend a national narrative of mass expulsion from land that was theirs; and demand of them something not demanded from Egypt or Jordan in peace agreements, nor of the Palestine Liberation Organization when, in 1993, Yasser Arafat wrote to Yitzhak Rabin that it “recognizes the right of Israel to live in peace and security.”
This issue is a waste of time, a complicating diversion when none is needed. As Shlomo Avineri, a leading Israeli political scientist, put it to me, “It’s a tactical issue raised by Netanyahu in order to make negotiations more difficult.”
Of course, any two-state peace agreement will have to be final and irreversible; it must ensure there are no further Palestinian claims on a secure Israel. It may well require some form of words saying the two states are the homelands of their respective peoples, a formula used by the Geneva Initiative. But that is for another day.
If Israel looks like a Jewish state and acts like a Jewish state, that is good enough for me — as long as it gets out of the corrosive business of occupation. Zionism, the one I identify with, forged a Jewish homeland in the name of restored Jewish pride in a democratic state of laws, not in the name of finicky insistence on a certain form of recognition, nor in the name of messianic religious Greater Israel nationalism.
When I spoke to him in Tel Aviv a few months ago, Yair Lapid, a top government minister, said: “The fact that we demand from Palestinians a declaration that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, I just think this is rubbish. I don’t need that. The whole point of Israel was we came here saying we don’t need anyone else to recognize us anymore because we can recognize ourselves. We are liberated.”
That’s right. It’s also true that Palestinians leaders, with zero democratic accountability, and through facile incitement, are not preparing their people for territorial compromise at or close to the 1967 lines. Then again, nothing in Israel’s actions facilitates that. And on we go to more failure, more victories of narrative over normalcy.
A last word: This column is dedicated to Mike O’Connor, fearless journalist, great Bosnia hand for The New York Times, vivid chronicler of the Israel-Palestine conflict over several years for NPR, and most recently representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists in Mexico, where saving press freedom is a daily struggle. Mike was an acute observer of the kind of human folly, fatuousness and self-interest that perpetuate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It brought him to tears. Yet he always found a way to laugh. Mike died suddenly last week, age 67, in Mexico City. If nothing else, I hope Kerry and the rest prove me wrong for him.
Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times.