Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is the President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Wed,Dec 11,2013 8 Tevet 5774
What does it mean, exactly, that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state? Prime Minister Netanyahu has made this demand several times recently in major speeches – at the United Nations, at Bar-Ilan University, and at the opening session of the 19th Knesset. But it is just not clear what he is talking about.
This absence of clarity became a public issue when Finance Minister Yair Lapid disputed Netanyahu’s claim during an interview in New York with Charlie Rose. Lapid declared that "I don’t feel we need a declaration from the Palestinians that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state. My father didn’t come to Haifa from the Budapest ghetto in order to get recognition from Abu Mazen."
Lapid’s comments elicited responses from Knesset members on both the right and the left, some agreeing with him and others with the Prime Minister.
American Jews, I think it is fair to say, are confused by the exchange and puzzled by the intentions of those involved in it.
Lapid’s argument seems far more compelling. As innumerable commentators have pointed out, Menachem Begin would be astonished and offended by the notion that the nation state of the Jewish people requires recognition from Palestinian Arabs—or from anyone else. Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. It came into being to return the Jewish people to history. It is, above all, an affirmation of Jewish self-determination: The Jewish people, by establishing a state with a secure Jewish majority on the soil of Eretz Yisrael, will determine their own destiny, unencumbered by the whims and the wishes of others.
If Zionism means anything at all, it means that the character of the Jewish state will be determined by the Jews, thank you very much. Why would Israel’s leaders plead with the Palestinians to define it for them? How are such pleas consistent with Zionist self-respect?
And that is not all. Even as a negotiating tactic, Netanyahu’s demand does not make a lot of sense. The Prime Minister seems to be begging for a proclamation of intent from the Palestinian negotiators. But if the idea is to assure Israel’s well-being, rhetorical declarations of this sort are of little value. It would be far better to concentrate on the practical arrangements, both military and demographic, that will guarantee Israel’s security.
But the Prime Minister, as noted, is not always clear about what he has in mind. At times he seems to be saying: My real concern here is not words and declarations but that you, the Palestinians, abandon the right of return.
On this point, I believe, he is absolutely right. Israel should sign no agreement that will permit Palestinians now living outside of Israel to be granted residency in the Jewish state. A two-state solution means that Jews will return to Israel and Palestinians will return to Palestine; this arrangement will guarantee the Jewish majority that Israel must have. It is often suggested that a “symbolic right of return” should permit a limited number of Palestinians to come to Israel, but the Prime Minister appears to be taking a hard line on this point—and rightly so. The problem with a symbolic right of return is that it establishes the legitimacy of the Palestinian argument; the minute that a “return” is legitimate for a modest number of Palestinians, Israel has conceded the principle—and there is no reason why, at some point in the future, it should not be legitimate for many more. Israel will need to make far-reaching concessions on issues of territory, but on the right of return, it should concede nothing at all. The Prime Minister should be applauded for bringing this point home.
Still, the difficulty here is that in his speeches, Mr. Netanyahu seems to have conflated two related but fundamentally separate arguments. He has rightly demanded an agreement in which the Palestinian Authority will waive any claim on a right of return to Israel. But since such an agreement will provide Israel with the secure Jewish majority that she requires, there will be no need for any additional “recognition” by the Palestinian side. And Israel—a creation of the Zionist movement—should not ask for such recognition. After all, there are some things that Zionists simply do not ask for.