Tel Aviv — Israeli-Palestinian peace talks appeared at the edge of a breakdown after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited the White House this week, but this time, the deal-breaking disputes don’t seem to be the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees, or recognition of the 1967 Green Line as in the past.
Instead, a new obstacle has emerged: Israel’s demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state — something that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said lies at the foundation of any Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. But Abbas remains a stubborn holdout on the demand, saying on Monday that the Palestinians have already recognized Israel and that’s sufficient.
Even the U.S. has struggled to strike a consistent message on the issue: several weeks ago peace envoy Martin Indyk told U.S. Jewish leaders that Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state would be part of the “framework” peace document that the U.S. is trying to get both sides to go along with. But last week it seemed that the U.S. might be shifting its position on the Jewish state demand, with Secretary of State John Kerry telling the House Foreign Relations Committee that Mr. Netanyahu’s repeated focus on the issue is a “mistake” and that the Palestinians had conferred recognition already, annoying many in Israel.
Kerry was referring to remarks made by former Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat, who was documented saying on camera that the PLO in a 1988 resolution passed by its legislative body recognized a Jewish state already.
On Tuesday, Alan Baker, the director of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a conservative think tank, assailed Kerry’s recent remarks, saying that the U.S. at the time rejected Arafat’s remarks as insufficient to constitute recognition of Israel. He said Kerry gave legitimacy to the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
“The Palestinians are simply trying to mislead the international community,” said Baker, a former Israeli ambassador and a former peace negotiator. “What they claim they said was rejected by the American administration. The fact that the Kerry has the gall to say this is a mistake by Israel is the ultimate insult that someone who pretends to be an honest broker [can] give to one side. The fact that Kerry is buying into this manipulation, this is what disturbs me.”
Though mutual recognition has always been a sticking point in the talks, Netanyahu is the first to seemingly front-load the negotiations with the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel’s Jewish character — saying that will prove once and for all the sincerity of the Arab world’s acceptance of Israel’s existence.
What’s more, Netanyahu has been criticized at home as well for insisting on the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Political leaders on the left have said that Israel had never made this a point of contention in the talks before, and that Israel doesn’t need the Palestinians to recognize its character. They also argue that Israel’s character is enshrined in the 1947 UN Partition plan calling for a Jewish state.
Abbas several weeks ago told Israeli students and youth leaders in a meeting at his headquarters in Ramallah that he doesn’t plan to drown Israel with refugees, but he refused to budge on questions of the Jewish state or even recognition of a Jewish people. He said that defining Israel’s character was not for him to do.
On Tuesday Nabil Shaath, a senior negotiator, signaled some possible Palestinian concessions on Jewish state recognition — at the end of the process.
“This idea, which comes as a surprise to us, has never been brought up before,” Shaath told Israel Radio. “It comes at a time when none of the issues have been resolved — the issue of refugees, the issue of Jerusalem. Had this come at the end, after having resolved all of these issues, it would have become an issue we could have resolved by simply asking the practical question: What does it mean? If we get the right answers, it could have been resolved then.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the Palestinians are being disingenuous on the issue. “There should be this recognition,” he said. “The question is not why Bibi is demanding it, but why Abbas is refusing to say the words. They have elevated the issue by their refusal to simply say it now or before.”
Amid the sense of crisis in the talks, Israel Radio quoted senior Israeli officials threatening to cancel the release of a final batch of Palestinian prisoners. The four-phased release of some 106 convicts — many of them imprisoned for murdering Israelis in acts of terrorism — was part of a goodwill gesture by Israel to give a boost to the talks.
“I don’t think it is for outsiders to tell Israel when to release prisoners in this context,” said David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “It is up to Israel to say the peace process is moving along and it will honor its commitment or, sadly, that it is not and the Palestinians are not upholding their obligations and we have to think twice.”
“The Palestinian demand for Israel to release Israeli Arabs opens a whole other kettle of fish. If the Palestinians can successfully assert their jurisdictional authority over Israeli citizens who happen to be Arab, to us it opens a Pandora’s box.”
Yossi Alpher, a former peace adviser under Ehud Barak, said that the stumbling block of recognition is symptomatic of negotiations that have been mishandled by the U.S. administration.
In the bigger picture, it points to the flaws of the failed Oslo-era paradigm under which Israelis and Palestinians negotiate all issues at once on a comprehensive agreement, Alpher said. Issues of mutual recognition that have to do with each sides “narrative” should be tabled for now, he said, and negotiators should focus on nuts-and-bolts challenges like a West Bank security regime.
“A serious analysis of the successes and failures of Oslo should have prompted Kerry to try for a different model,” Alpher said. “But he just said, ‘I’m going to try harder.’”
Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.