Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Importance of Mutual Recognition as a Parameter of Peace

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Or Avi-Guy

As Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams come together in Washington in an attempt to reignite serious peace talks, there is one issue which tends to be excluded from mainstream reporting and analysis of the prospect of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While core issues such as territorial compromise, refugees, Jerusalem and settlements often appear in the media, a central question for Israel, mutual recognition - including the recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people - is rarely mentioned.

Yet for Israel, this is a very significant issue, and for Palestinians, it is one of the areas in which they find it hardest to compromise. It is also an important issue - along with the Palestinian demand that they be promised talks will be "based on the 1967 lines" - on which US Secretary of State John Kerry had to find a compromise formula to get talks in Washington restarted last week. According to Israeli security analyst Shlomo Brom, Kerry's "agreed formula" for renewing talks - which has still not been made public - included the following:

Israel does not agree to base the negotiations on the 1967 lines with an agreed territorial swap, but the United States will make a commitment to the Palestinians that it has adopted this principle.

Similarly, while the Palestinians have not agreed to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, the United States will make a commitment to Israel that it has adopted this principle - which balances the previous commitment to the Palestinians.

Furthermore, even when the issue of mutual recognition is discussed, it is often badly misrepresented. It is often described as a request for theocracy, or a licence for nationalistic racism and discrimination, or as demanding that the Palestinians "recognise" an Israeli self-definition which has nothing to do with them.

Yet more than just a symbolic act, this recognition is likely to be central in any eventual final-status agreement, carrying some very important practical implications.

Israeli Ambassador to the US, Dr. Michael Oren - a noted historian before taking up his diplomatic post - recently discussed the concept of mutual recognition with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, and did an excellent job of explaining what it does and does not mean, and why Israel needs such recognition.

Oren emphasised in the interview that the main obstacles to resumption of negotiations were the Palestinian insistence on pre-conditions and their unwillingness to live in a situation of mutual recognition. Israel, Oren said, has for years supported a two-state resolution- "a Jewish state of Israel living side-by-side in peace and security and mutual recognition with the Palestinian state."

Oren explains that while Israel have recognised the national expirations of Palestinians and their pursuit of self determination as a people, Palestinians have yet to recognise Jews as a people with legitimate national aspirations. "We recognise the Palestinians as a people endowed with the right of self-determination," Oren said, "They don't recognise the Jews as a people yet with the right of self-determination. We have to get to that spot."

This point is often missing from discussions about the two state solution- the acknowledgment that there are two peoples, each which a legitimate right of self determination - Palestinians who aspire to establish a Palestinian state, and Jews seeking recognition of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people. Oren stated later in the interview that:

"The Palestinians are a people. The Jews are a people. Both have the right of self-determination and the only way to make peace is to divide this land that we both claim as our homeland."

Oren went on to explain the logic behind the Israeli desire for mutual recognition - especially its implications for solidifying a final status agreement by settling any future claims and resolving the refugee problem:

"But when we say Jewish state, what does it mean? It means that the Jewish state is permanent and legitimate. We're not interlopers. We're not trespassers. We're not a transient state.

And it also means there'll be an end of claims and end of conflict. When you sign the dotted line, there's a real peace there.

It also means that when we come up to the question of the Palestinian refugees. And today in the Middle East there are about between 6 and 8 million descendants of the refugees from 1948 that those refugees who want to be repatriated, will be repatriated to the Palestinian state and not to Israel, which will remain the Jewish state.

It's predicated on having a Jewish majority. We only have 8 million people. You bring in 8 million Palestinians we don't have that majority anymore."

Oren might have added that mutual recognition better reflects the historical reality. During the establishment of the State of Israel, and in the following decades, the region experienced extensive demographic changes, refugee flows and migration waves. Jewish refugees and migrants from post-Holocaust Europe, from Arab and Muslim countries, from Western countries and from the Soviet bloc were absorbed and resettled in Israel. Similarly, when a Palestinian state is created as part of a peace agreement, Palestinian refugees could resettle in the new state. Therefore, mutual recognition highlights the parallel processes that a two-state resolution represents, since the days of the UN Partition Plan; two peoples with national aspirations, each wanting self determination and self rule in their own sovereign state, each responsible for resettling their own refugees.

Perhaps the most sensitive aspect of the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is the meaning of such recognition to non-Jewish minorities, including Israel's large Palestinian Arab minority. Oren explained to Zakaria the distinction between a Jewish state as a religious category and a national one, something which seems to confuse all too many commentators when they discuss Israel:

OREN: "[...] the Jews are a people and we have a right to self-determination. There are about 193 states in the world, Fareed. Most of them are nation states; the Bulgarians, the Hungarians, the Germans...

ZAKARIA: Right, but those are not religious categories. Those are national categories.

OREN: But Jew[ish] is also a national category and unlike countries like Denmark that have a national church, unlike Great Britain that has a national church, we don't have an official religion. We are a people and we are a nation state like most of the nation states in the world.

And many of those nation states, if not most of them, have ethnic minorities that are loyal minorities whose rights are respected. Some of them have an ethnic affiliation with another state.

It's very common, certainly in Europe. And there's nothing anomalous, nothing unusual about the arrangement which we're seeking."

This is the point that too many commentators and armchair pundits fail to grasp. Many, it seems, still struggle to see the Jewish people as a national group seeking self determination and a national home, but instead regard them as simply people sharing a religious faith. A deeper and broader recognition of Israel not as a religiously Jewish state, but rather as a nation state, would enhance the parallels and similarities between Israeli and Palestinian aspirations, rights and histories. And this is the only viable intellectual basis for a two-state resolution.

Senior Israeli negotiator Tal Becker made this point more directly in an essay published in the AIR in 2011:

"The term 'Jewish State' is sometimes misconceived as implying an aspiration for a Jewish theocracy. Properly understood, however, the claim seeks no more and no less than public recognition of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in a state of their own. In this respect, the demand for recognition is no different from the self-determination claims advanced by many other peoples under international law.

The claim should also not be seen as an attempt to negate the corresponding Palestinian right to self-determination. Indeed, today's advocates of recognition argue that it is Israel's acceptance of a Palestinian nation-state that justifies parallel Palestinian acknowledgement of the Jewish nation-state."

Becker canvasses all the issues relating to Israel's quest for mutual national recognition much more thoroughly in that essay - which is highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand this issue in more depth.


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