Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's offer to trade a settlement construction moratorium for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish nation-state, which he put before the Knesset at the opening of its winter session Monday, Oct. 11, was not only summarily rejected by the Palestinian Authority and criticized by the Obama administration; it also ran into heated criticism at home, much of it coming from inside the prime minister's own Likud and his coalition allies.
Some of Netanyahu's most unexpected steps in recent weeks were clearly maneuvers to prepare the ground for the eventual talks with the Palestinians and Syria. Monday, the ministerial committee on legislature was asked to amend a law mandating a popular referendum to ratify any accords providing for the transfer of territory including Jerusalem, Golan and the Negev – unless 80 of the 120-member Knesset ratified it.
Last week, a majority of the ministers approved a law amendment rephrasing the Citizenship Law's oath of loyalty for new applicants. If this amendment goes through up to enactment, new applicants for citizenship will be required to swear to be loyal to Israel "as a Jewish democracy."
It was carried by a vote of 22 to eight ministers, five Labor and three of the prime minister's own Likud who voted against his motion.
The rationale for this change offered by the prime minister's aides went like this: We can't expect the outside world to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish democracy if it is not acknowledged in our own laws.
It is this demand of the Palestinians, originally programmed to wind up the core issues leading up to a final-status accord, which has become a sharp bone of contention in national discourse.
The concept of the Jewish nation-state (not in the religious but national sense) is widely accepted. Indeed, Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and its nation-state has been taken granted by much of the world too for more than a century. It is the way Netanyahu is harping on it and its timing in the context of the stalled negotiations with the Palestinians that has drawn fire as doing more harm than good.
What is the point of raising a question that should not be raised at all, least of all in the most provocative context of the settlement freeze? And why open an old wound, namely, the steadfast Arab refusal to accept the Jewish state in 1947 when plenty of new one have accumulated since?
Former defense minister Moshe Arens, one of Likud's founders, said in an interview that the dynamics of reality and the co-existence of Jews and Arabs within the democratic Jewish state speak much louder than words.
Arab leaders, led by Knesset Member Ahmed Tibi, condemn any attempt to define Israel as a Jewish democracy. He rejects both parts of the definition and complain bitterly of discrimination, Netanyahu's supporters reply that it is the refusal of Israeli Arab leaders to accept this definition and the loyalty it entails which holds them back from enjoying complete equality in every respect.
Respected jurist Prof. Ruth Gavison pointed out that in its 1947 resolution, the UN awarded Jews and Arabs the right of self-determination in Palestine. Egypt and Jordan were the first Arab governments to accept those rights when they signed peace treaties with Israel (albeit without demanding that Israel halt the settlement drive which was burgeoning at the time).
However, this recognition would contradict the key clause of the Palestinian charter, which President Bill Clinton tried hard and failed to get its leaders to revoke – even for a peace accord. Furthermore, by accepting Israel as Jewish nation-state, the Palestinians would deny what they call the 1948 Palestinian refugees' "right of return" to their former homes. This right is endorsed by Israeli Arab leaders because it would expand their numbers from roughly one-fifth of Israel's population to a majority.
Prof. Gavison goes on to argue that to uphold its right to self-determination as a Jewish nation-state, Israel is bound accept the Palestinians' equal right.
Therefore, behind his untimely and counter-productive rhetoric, Netanyahu's steps are consistent with his main objective, which is to make the Palestinians relinquish their absolutist demand for all of Palestine as enshrined in their national ethos and accept the Jewish people's right to self-determination in return for Israel's equal and parallel acknowledgement of their right to Palestinian statehood.