Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, is an old-fashioned right-wing Zionist, which is why he is leading the chorus demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel "as a Jewish state" as a precondition for a settlement freeze and negotiations.
Historically, right-wing Zionism -- in contrast to the socialist Zionism of David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and their allies -- preferred rhetoric to action. While the old socialists were building the physical infrastructure of the future state and then the state itself, the right-wing Zionists stuck to rhetoric. The left built the army, the roads, the farms (kibbutzim), the air force, the factories, even the nuclear deterrent, while the right issued fiery statements about the need for Israel to expand, rid itself of Arabs, and become purely Jewish.
Even in the wake of the Holocaust, with its survivors desperate to find a home, the right insisted that an Israel without the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem wasn't worth having. Not surprisingly, the current prime minister's father felt that way. He opposed the United Nations Partition Plan, which was Israel's birth certificate.
When a struggling Israel negotiated a multibillion-dollar aid package from Germany in the 1950's, essentially saving the state and a million Holocaust survivors from bankruptcy, the right's leader, Menachem Begin was vehemently opposed. "No blood money," he screamed at raucous rallies, indifferent to the fact that without the aid from Germany (to which Israel was more than entitled) the state could not survive.
The only thing that has changed in the years since is that now the Israeli right has a record of building something: settlements. Although they disdained building in the Galilee and the Negev, they have zealously embraced the idea of building in the West Bank. Today the settler movement is the physical manifestation of the word "No."
"No" to peace with the Palestinians, which ultimately will mean "no" to democratic Israel at all.
And that is why it makes such eminent sense that Oren is the leading proponent for the Netanyahu government's demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel "as a Jewish state."
It's a new demand. Neither Egypt nor Jordan had to recognize Israel as anything but Israel when they signed peace treaties with it.
In fact, the phrase "Jewish state" first came into modern prominence because of a mistranslation. Theodor Herzl, who invented political Zionism, called his 1895 manifesto calling for a Jewish homeland Der Judenstaat which was mistranslated in English as The Jewish State. Actually, the very secular and assimilated Herzl called his book The Jews' State, meaning a homeland or state for Jews, not some kind of theocracy for the faithful.
And Israeli governments were more than content with that until Likud party prime ministers decided recently to demand that Israel must be recognized as Jewish by religion.
Obviously secular Israelis don't like that. The Orthodox Jewish authorities already decide who can be a citizen, who can marry, and who can re-marry if a partner dies.
Those American Jews whose Judaism derives from the paternal and not maternal side are not considered Jews, period. And they are ineligible to become citizens under the Law of Return. Other Jews can just become Israelis by simply landing in Tel Aviv and declaring that they want citizenship. Only Jewish orthodoxy is recognized in Israel.
In other words, the status quo is bad enough, even without the insistence that Israel be recognized "as a Jewish state."
Palestinians feel even more strongly. After all, there are a million Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who would become second-class citizens under the new formulation. Additionally, that formulation precludes any -- even a token -- return to Israel by any Palestinian refugees or their progeny.
And that is why the "as a Jewish state" mantra was invented: to preclude an agreement with the Palestinians.
Here is Ambassador Oren in the New York Times on October 13th:
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.... 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.
Actually, the "core" of the conflict was the refusal by Israelis and Palestinians to recognize each other's right to the land period. And that ended in 1993, when the Palestinians formally recognized "the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security." At the same time Israel recognized the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people (every prime minister since 1993 has recognized the Palestinians' right to a state).
In other words, the Palestinians have met Oren's demand that the Palestinians "recognize us as their permanent and legitimate neighbors" and he knows it. But, of course, neither he nor Netanyahu will accept "yes" for an answer. They are all about "no."
To their credit, however, the Palestinians seem not to be falling into this trap. Rather than having to face blame for holding up negotiations by not agreeing to Israel's latest demand, they tossed the ball right back.
Speaking for the Palestinians, senior negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo said that the Israelis could define their state any way they choose.
He said, "we recognize Israel by whatever name it applies to itself..."
The only condition is that the state they recognize would first define its borders. (After all, can anyone expect the Palestinians to recognize Arab East Jerusalem, Nablus, Hebron, Jenin, and Ramallah as part of a Jewish state?)
This is exactly right. It is up to Israelis to decide what kind of state they want to live in -- a secular democracy or a theocracy (the majority will obviously choose the first). The Palestinians have enough to worry about without defining Israel.
One has to hand it to Netanyahu and Oren. This time they have come up with the most bogus excuse ever for not negotiating. And it sounds so innocuous. It isn't.
The solution, however, is. Once borders are decided upon, Palestinians recognize Israel as the "State of Israel." Israelis recognize Palestine as the "State of Palestine." It's that simple.