I’ll confess that when I first read about Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s disagreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, I felt a degree of sympathy. Not for the substance of the argument, but for the manner in which Lapid expressed it.
“My father didn’t come to Haifa from the Budapest ghetto in order to get recognition from Abu Mazen (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas),” Lapid said Oct. 7 at New York’s 92nd Street Y.
“Darn right,” I grunted at my Mac.
The core ethos of Zionism, as Lapid himself explained, is that we Jews are no longer the passive objects of other nations’ histories. We make our own history and we define ourselves, for we are, as the Israeli national anthem Hatikvah declares in its penultimate line, “a free people in our own land.”
But however much we might appreciate Lapid’s healthy dismissal of the opinions of those who deny the legitimacy of Jewish national aspirations, it is precisely because of those same aspirations that his argument is dangerously flawed.
When you study what others call the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what I prefer to call the Palestinian war against Israel’s legitimacy, it should be painfully apparent that it is the intangible aspects of this long dispute that have confounded a final agreement, and not the tangible ones.
What I mean is this: if this dispute were solely about sharing a territory, equitable distribution of water rights, common security arrangements, and so forth, we might well have arrived at a resolution by now. When you look at other protracted conflicts that have largely been resolved—such as the one in Northern Ireland between mainly Catholic Irish nationalists and mainly Protestant Unionists and the British government—success has stemmed from the basic fact that each party recognizes the other’s legitimacy. However revolting the terrorist actions of the Irish Republican Army, its leaders never sought the dissolution of the United Kingdom. Equally, the loyalist fanatics who terrorized innocent Catholics in Belfast and Derry did not seek to destroy the Republic of Ireland.
For that reason, the Northern Ireland peace process was able to focus on tangible goals, like the disarmament of terrorist groups and a formula for power sharing, rather than getting bogged down in a competition about historical rights. That’s not to deny the obvious existence of historical wounds, merely to observe that they were overcome.
By contrast, what nags in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the rejection by the Palestinian side of the entire Zionist enterprise. Regardless of whether they are sitting at the table with Israeli negotiators, or gallivanting around the U.N. demanding unilateral recognition, the essential Palestinian message has, for more than a century, been that the Jews really have no right to be here in the first place.
The Palestinian campaign for the so-called “right of return” is the clearest example of what I’m describing. Abbas and the PA, as Yair Lapid really should know, repudiate Israel’s Jewish character because they refuse to give up on the idea that Israel’s Jewish society will eventually be overwhelmed by the descendants of the Arab refugees of 1948 “returning” to a country that they have never set foot in.
As long as the Palestinians reject Israel’s Jewish character, they will insist on the “right of return.” That’s why we don’t have the luxury of saying, “damn what you think.” Recognition of Israel as the historic homeland of the Jewish people should not be demoted to the status of an afterthought, something we’d like to achieve if we can, but won’t worry about if we can’t. It is, rather, the key reason why this conflict has persisted for so long.
As the Oslo process of the 1990s demonstrated, you can only go so far by not tackling these fundamental ideological objections on the Palestinian side. Indeed, negotiating with Palestinian leaders as if these objections don’t exist simply encourages Abbas and others to raise them at delicate moments. That way, they can portray the Israelis as intransigent occupiers, safe in the knowledge that the rest of the world regards the Palestinians as blameless victims.
That is why Netanyahu’s unwavering stance on the need for Palestinian recognition of Israel’s Jewish character should be welcomed as a gesture of peace, not an excuse to perpetuate the status quo. Peace is only possible if the Palestinians revise the historical narrative that currently leads them to denigrate Israel as the “Zionist entity.”
“Ah,” you say, “that’ll never happen.” And you may be right. But that’s a subject for another time.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.