By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
JERUSALEM -- The documents accepted by Israeli leaders during breakthrough peace talks with the Palestinians in Oslo in 1993 said nothing about their country's status as a Jewish state or homeland -- a concept absent as well from other accords negotiated by the two sides as recently as 2007.
"It has never been an Israeli demand," said Ron Pundak, a member of Israel's negotiating team in Norway and now director of the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv. "When we negotiated Oslo, the issue of the characteristics of our state was never an issue. I think it is a mistake that we demand of others how we define ourselves."
Sixteen years later, with the Oslo accords tattered by years of conflict, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has decided that a final peace will require more: Palestinian recognition of Israel, not just as a diplomatic or political entity, but as the legitimate homeland of the Jewish people. Palestinians view the demand as unnecessary, a bid to derail their quest for a state of their own. But Netanyahu's advisers say it is an effort to push the peace process beyond diplomacy and toward reconciliation.
"If there is no recognition that the Jewish people exist, that the Jewish people emerged from this land, then you have no end of conflict," said Michael B. Oren, Netanyahu's incoming ambassador to Washington. "During Oslo, the thinking was: We don't need recognition. We are strong. We are the winners. Give them a chance. Give them an opportunity to acclimate to peace. This was wrong."
"We know the starting point that the Israelis have on this. It strips the process of all terms of reference," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said in an interview last week, referring to negotiations between the two sides dating as far back as the Madrid peace conference in 1991. Rather than revisiting history, he said, negotiations should resume where they left off in late 2008.
"We are 16 years after Oslo," he said. "If you go back to this stuff, it predates the political process."
Netanyahu laid out the demand in a speech at Bar-Ilan University last week in which he gave qualified backing to the "two-state solution" advocated by the United States and much of the international community.
The demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state was seen by some Israeli analysts as important for Netanyahu -- to keep his right-leaning government coalition intact as he took an unpopular step and to remain true to principle even as he discussed how to form the Palestinian state he has long opposed.
The issue is also seen as a proxy for discussion of the status of millions of Palestinian refugees in the region. For Israel to survive as a Jewish homeland, Netanyahu said, the refugees -- descendants of the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced to leave their homes during the 1948 war that led to Israel's creation -- will have to be absorbed by countries other than Israel, expunging any "right of return."
But Oren and others said it is wrong to think of the demand as a restatement of Netanyahu's beliefs -- negotiable once peace talks begin -- or merely an effort to influence future debate over refugees. Rather, Oren said, Netanyahu intends it as a "super-core issue," which would need to be addressed for him to set aside a lifetime's conviction that a Palestinian state would undermine Israel's security.
If anything, Netanyahu's advisers say, the years since Oslo have deepened the Israeli leader's belief that peace requires the Palestinians to go beyond the September 1993 letter in which Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that "the PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security."
In the intervening years, Arab Israelis -- about 20 percent of the country's population -- became more assertive about their national identity and pushed for Israel to become "a state of all its citizens," said Jamal Zahalka, an Israeli lawmaker. The intifada that erupted in 2000 and the rise in popularity of the Islamist Hamas movement, advocating Israel's elimination, reinforced the sense that a purely diplomatic accord would not leave Israel secure, said Yoram Hazony, who helped research Netanyahu's 1993 book, "A Place Among the Nations."
"You saw significant realization on the part of the Israeli political leadership that there was a danger that the recognition was not for the state of Israel as it is, but for some other state of Israel," whose status as a Jewish national home was disputed, said Hazony, provost at the Shalem Center, a research institute in Jerusalem that is influential in Netanyahu's government.
Still, international agreements continued to be negotiated without mention of Israel as a Jewish state. The 2003 "road map" reached under the Bush administration does not include the concept; neither does the November 2007 "joint understanding" that Israel, the Palestinians and the United States negotiated in Annapolis "in furtherance of the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side."
An official with the centrist Kadima party, which was in power at the time, said the issue was viewed as something to tackle at the end of talks, not set as a central condition.
To Palestinians, the new demand is outside the norm of what independent states ask of each other: Jordan and Egypt were not asked to make such declarations, and Netanyahu advisers say they would not expect it of other Arab states, such as Syria. It also, Palestinians say, reopens a debate about historical blame at a time when the Obama administration is pushing for practical steps toward a regional peace. Netanyahu cast his speech in just those terms, arguing that the Arab rejection of a 1947 U.N. plan to create "independent Arab and Jewish States" was at the heart of a conflict that would not end until the Jewish claim on Israel is accepted.
"That reassertion of the Israeli narrative -- he is addressing a domestic audience, and I can understand it," Fayyad said. "But the issue is not about a restatement of peace and 'Let's sit down and talk about it.' It's 'What does it require to make it happen?' "
Netanyahu has proposed interim steps toward limited Palestinian statehood, focusing on economic and social development of the territories. But the final step, Oren said, will be subject to first principles.
"The Israelis recognize that the Palestinians have suffered, and we are going to try to relieve that to the extent we can within our security needs," he said. "We ask that we are recognized as a people that are not alien."
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.