Trap Of Recognising Israel
By Jonathan Cook in Nazareth
16 December, 2006
The problem facing the Palestinian
leadership, as they strive to bring the millions living in the occupied
territories some small relief from their collective suffering, reduces
to a matter of a few words. Like a naughty child who has only to say
“sorry” to be released from his room, the Hamas government
need only say “We recognise Israel” and supposedly aid and
international goodwill will wash over the West Bank and Gaza.
That, at least, was the gist of Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert’s
recent speech during a visit to the Negev, when he suggested that his
country’s hand was stretched out across the sands towards the
starving masses of Gaza -- if only Hamas would repent. “Recognise
us and we are ready to talk about peace” was the implication.
Certainly the Palestinian people have been viciously punished for making
their democratic choice early this year to elect a Hamas government
that Israel and the Western powers disapprove of:
* an economic blockade has been imposed, starving the Palestinian Authority
of income to pay for services and remunerate its large workforce;
* millions of dollars in
tax monies owed to the Palestinians have been illegally withheld by
Israel, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis;
* a physical blockade of
Gaza enforced by Israel has prevented the Palestinians from exporting
their produce, mostly perishable crops, and from importing essentials
like food and medicine;
* Israeli military strikes
have damaged Gaza’s vital infrastructure, including the supply
of electricity and water, as well as randomly killing its inhabitants;
* and thousands of families
are being torn apart as Israel uses the pretext of its row with Hamas
to stop renewing the visas of Palestinian foreign passport holders.
The magic words “We recognise you” could end all this suffering.
So why did their prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, vow last week never
to utter them. Is Hamas so filled with hatred and loathing for Israel
as a Jewish state that it cannot make such a simple statement of good
It is easy to forget that, though conditions have dramatically deteriorated
of late, the Palestinians’ problems did not start with the election
of Hamas. Israel’s occupation is four decades old, and no Palestinian
leader has ever been able to extract from Israel a promise of real statehood
in all of the occupied territories: not the mukhtars, the largely compliant
local leaders, who for decades were the only representatives allowed
to speak on behalf of the Palestinians after the national leadership
was expelled; not the Palestinian Authority under the secular leadership
of Yasser Arafat, who returned to the occupied territories in the mid-1990s
after the PLO had recognised Israel; not the leadership of his successor,
Mahmoud Abbas, the “moderate” who first called for an end
to the armed intifada; and now not the leaders of Hamas, even though
they have repeatedly called for a long-term truce (hudna) as the first
step in building confidence.
Similarly, few Palestinians doubt that Israel will continue to entrench
the occupation -- just as it did during the supposed peace-making years
of Oslo, when the number of Jewish settlers doubled in the occupied
territories -- even if Hamas is ousted and a government of national
unity, of technocrats or even of Fatah takes its place.
There is far more at stake for Israel in winning this little concession
from Hamas than most observers appreciate. A statement saying that Hamas
recognised Israel would do much more than meet Israel’s precondition
for talks; it would mean that Hamas had walked into the same trap that
was set earlier for Arafat and Fatah. That trap is designed to ensure
that any peaceful solution to the conflict is impossible.
It achieves this end in two ways.
First, as has already been understood, at least by those paying attention,
Hamas’ recognition of Israel’s “right to exist”
would effectively signify that the Palestinian government was publicly
abandoning its own goal of struggling to create a viable Palestinian
That is because Israel refuses to demarcate its own future borders,
leaving it an open question what it considers to be the extent of “its
existence” it is demanding Hamas recognise. We do know that no
one in the Israeli leadership is talking about a return to Israel’s
borders that existed before the 1967 war, or probably anything close
Without a return to those pre-1967 borders (plus a substantial injection
of goodwill from Israel in ensuring unhindered passage between Gaza
and the West Bank) no possibility exists of a viable Palestinian state
And no goodwill, of course, will be forthcoming. Every Israeli leader
has refused to recognise the Palestinians, first as a people and now
as a nation. And in the West’s typically hypocritical fashion
when dealing with the Palestinians, no one has ever suggested that Israel
commit to such recognition.
In fact, Israeli governments have glorified in their refusal to extend
the same recognition to the Palestinians that they demand from them.
Famously Golda Meir, a Labor prime minister, said that the Palestinians
did not exist, adding in 1971 that Israel’s “borders are
determined by where Jews live, not where there is a line on a map.”
At the same time she ordered that the Green Line, Israel’s border
until the 1967 war, be erased from all official maps.
That legacy hit the headlines last week when the dovish education minister,
Yuli Tamir, caused a storm by issuing a directive that the Green Line
should be reintroduced in Israeli schoolbooks. There were widespread
protests against her “extreme leftist ideology” from politicians
According to Israeli educators, the chances of textbooks showing the
Green Line again -- or dropping references to “Judea and Samaria”,
the Biblical names for the West Bank, or including Arab towns on maps
of Israel -- are close to nil. The private publishers who print the
textbooks would refuse to incur the extra costs of reprinting the maps,
said Prof Yoram Bar-Gal, head of geography at Haifa University.
Sensitive to the damage that the row might do to Israel’s international
image, and aware that Tamir’s directive is never likely to be
implemented, Olmert agreed in principle to the change. “There
is nothing wrong with marking the Green Line,” he said. But, in
a statement that made his agreement entirely hollow, he added: “But
there is an obligation to emphasize that the government's position and
public consensus rule out returning to the 1967 lines.”
The second element to the trap is far less well understood. It explains
the strange formulation of words Israel uses in making its demand of
Hamas. Israel does not ask it simply to “recognise Israel”,
but to “recognise Israel’s right to exist”. The difference
is not a just matter of semantics.
The concept of a state having any rights is not only strange but alien
to international law. People have rights, not states. And that is precisely
the point: when Israel demands that its “right to exist”
be recognised, the subtext is that we are not speaking of recognition
of Israel as a normal nation state but as the state of a specific people,
In demanding recognition of its right to exist, Israel is ensuring that
the Palestinians agree to Israel’s character being set in stone
as an exclusivist Jewish state, one that privileges the rights of Jews
over all other ethnic, religious and national groups inside the same
territory. The question of what such a state entails is largely glossed
over both by Israel and the West.
For most observers, it means simply that Israel must refuse to allow
the return of the millions of Palestinians languishing in refugee camps
throughout the region, whose former homes in Israel have now been appropriated
for the benefit of Jews. Were they allowed to come back, Israel’s
Jewish majority would be eroded overnight and it could no longer claim
to be a Jewish state, except in the same sense that apartheid South
Africa was a white state.
This conclusion is apparently accepted by Romano Prodi, Italy’s
prime minister, after a round of lobbying in European captials from
Israel’s telegenic foreign minister, Tzipi Livni. According to
the Jerusalem Post, Prodi is saying in private that Israel should receive
guarantees from the Palestinians that its Jewish character will never
be in doubt.
Israeli officials are cheering what they believe is the first crack
in Europe’s support for international law and the rights of the
refugees. “It’s important to get everyone on the same page
on this one,” an official told the Post.
But in truth the consequences of the Palestinian leadership recognising
Israel as a Jewish state run far deeper than the question of the future
of the Palestinian refugees. In my book Blood and Religion, I set out
these harsh consequences both for the Palestinians in the occupied territories
and for the million or so Palestinians who live inside Israel as citizens,
supposedly with the same rights as Jewish citizens.
My argument is that this need to maintain Israel’s Jewish character
at all costs is actually the engine of its conflict with the Palestinians.
No solution is possible as long as Israel insists on privileging citizenship
for Jews above other groups, and on distorting the region’s territorial
and demographic realities to ensure that the numbers continue to weigh
in the Jews’ favour.
Although ultimately the return of the refugees poses the biggest threat
to Israel’s “existence”, Israel has a far more pressing
demographic concern: the refusal by the Palestinians living in the West
Bank to leave the parts of that territory Israel covets (and which it
knows by the Biblical names of Judea and Samaria).
Within a decade, the Palestinians in the occupied territories and the
million Palestinian citizens living inside Israel will outnumber Jews,
both those living in Israel and the settlers in the West Bank.
That was one of the chief reasons for the “disengagement”
from Gaza: Israel could claim that, even though it is still occupying
the small piece of land militarily, it was no longer responsible for
the population there. By withdrawing a few thousand settlers from the
Strip, 1.4 million Gazans were instantly wiped from the demographic
But though the loss of Gaza has posponed for a few years the threat
of a Palestinian majority in the expanded state Israel desires, it has
not magicly guaranteed Israel’s continuing existence as a Jewish
state. That is because Israel’s Palestinian citizens, though a
minority comprising no more than fifth of Israel’s population,
can potentially bring the whole house of cards tumbling down.
For the past decade they have been demanding that Israel be reformed
from a Jewish state, which systematically discriminates against them
and denies their Palestinian identity, into a “state of all its
citizens”, a liberal democracy that would give all citizens, Jews
and Palestinians, equal rights.
Israel has characterised the demand for a state of all its citizens
as subversion and treason, realising that, were the Jewish state to
become a liberal democracy, Palestinian citizens could justifiably demand:
* the right to marry Palestinians
from the occupied territories and from the Diaspora, winning them Israeli
citizenship -- “a right of return through the backdoor”
as officials call it.
* the right to bring Palestinian
relatives in exile back to Israel under a Right of Return programme
that would be a pale shadow of the existing Law of Return that guarantees
any Jew anywhere in the world the automatic right to Israeli citizenship.
To prevent the first threat, Israel passed a flagrantly racist law in
2003 that makes it all but impossible for Palestinians with Israeli
citizenship to bring a Palestinian spouse to Israel. For the time being,
such couples have little choice but to seek asylum abroad, if other
countries will give them refuge.
But like the Gaza disengagement, this piece of legislation is a delaying
tactic rather than a solution to the problem of Israel’s “existence”.
So behind the scenes Israel has been formulating ideas that taken together
would remove large segments of Israel’s Palestinian population
from its borders and strip any remaining “citizens” of their
political rights -- unless they swear loyalty to a “Jewish and
democratic state” and thereby renounce their demand that Israel
reform itself into a liberal democracy.
This is the bottom line for a Jewish state, just as it was for a white
apartheid South Africa: if we are to survive, then we must be able to
do whatever it takes to keep ourselves in power, even if it means systematically
violating the human rights of all those we rule over and who do not
belong to our group.
Ultimately, the consequences of Israel being allowed to remain a Jewish
state will be felt by all of us, wherever we live -- and not only because
of the fallout from the continuing and growing anger in the Arab and
Muslim worlds at the double standards applied by the West to the conflict
between Israel and the Palestinians.
Given Israel’s view that its most pressing interest is not peace
or regional accommodation with its neighbours but the need to ensure
a Jewish majority at all costs to protect its “existence”,
Israel is likely to act in ways that endanger regional and global stability.
A small taste of that was suggested in the role played by Israel’s
supporters in Washington in making the case for the invasion of Iraq,
and this summer in Israel’s assault on Lebanon. But it is most
evident in its drumbeat of war against Iran.
Israel has been leading the attempts to characterise the Iranian regime
as profoundly anti-Semitic, and its presumed ambitions for nuclear weapons
as directed by the sole goal of wanting to “wipe Israel off the
map” -- a calculatedly mischievious mistranslation of Iranian
president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech.
Most observers have assumed that Israel is genuinely concerned for its
safety from nuclear attack, however implausible the idea that even the
most fanatical Muslim regime would, unprovoked, launch nuclear missiles
against a small area of land that contains some of Islam’s holiest
sites, in Jerusalem.
But in truth there is another reason why Israel is concerned about a
nuclear-armed Iran that has nothing to do with conventional ideas about
Last month, Ephraim Sneh, one of Israel’s most distinguished generals
and now Olmert’s deputy defence minister, revealed that the government’s
primary concern was not the threat posed by Ahmadinejad firing nuclear
missiles at Israel but the effect of Iran’s possession of such
weapons on Jews who expect Israel to have a monopoly on the nuclear
If Iran got such weapons, “Most Israelis would prefer not to live
here; most Jews would prefer not to come here with families, and Israelis
who can live abroad will ... I am afraid Ahmadinejad will be able to
kill the Zionist dream without pushing a button. That’s why we
must prevent this regime from obtaining nuclear capability at all costs.”
In other words, the Israeli government is considering either its own
pre-emptive strike on Iran or encouraging the United States to undertake
such an attack -- despite the terrible consequences for global security
-- simply because a nuclear-armed Iran might make Israel a less attractive
place for Jews to live, lead to increased emigration and tip the demographic
balance in the Palestinians’ favour.
Regional and possibly global war may be triggered simply to ensure that
Israel’s “existence” as a state that offers exclusive
privileges to Jews continues.
For all our sakes, we must hope that the Palestinians and their Hamas
government continue refusing to “recognise Israel’s right
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth,
Israel. His book “Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish
and Democratic State” is published by Pluto Press. His website
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