More than once I have drawn attention to the religious prejudice that underpins the ongoing conflict between Israel and its Muslim neighbours. I have argued that Islamic opposition to Jewish self-determination in any part of the realm of Islam continues to provide the fuel that has kept this conflict on the boil; that it matters little whether Israel were to agree to withdraw from all or just some of the territory it has controlled since 1967; and that, therefore, peacemaking efforts that prioritise such withdrawal are doomed to failure.
Leaving aside Jewish self-haters, there are what I am prepared to accept are serious-minded folk who, because they are serious-minded, cannot bring themselves to accept the religious origins of the conflict, pinning their hopes instead on a species of territorial pragmatism bolstered by an urge to be “even-handed” in relation to the Muslim narrative of a naqba (catastrophe) which in 1948-49 led to the “ethnic cleansing” of Arabs from what became the Jewish state. Reverse that narrative, they argue, and all could be well. To ask the Arabs to accept Israel as a Jewish state, they insist, is to dwell on that which is peripheral.
This was the argument used by the British-born journalist Roger Cohen in an article in the New York Times on January 1. The demand that the Palestinian-Arab leadership recognise Israel as a Jewish state was, Cohen insisted, “a complicating diversion when none is needed.” When the NYT published a short riposte, by me, I was challenged by sundry persons to give chapter and verse for my counter-argument that the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict are religious and not territorial.
The NYT has, however, most helpfully come to my assistance. On March 6, it published a column by Dr Ali Jarbawi, who has taught political science at Bir Zeit University and who has held high office as Minister of Planning of the Palestinian National Authority. Entitled, Defining the Jewish State, Jarbawi’s essay should be compulsory reading for all who wish to understand Palestinian opposition to the very concept of Jewish statehood.
Jarbawi begins with an obligatory rant against the US, which, he claims, always takes a pro-Israeli position, and against Israel which, he asserts, is not interested in a just peace but only in establishing facts “on the ground” and in making new claims upon its protector, the American government. But then he turns to the demand that Palestinians recognise the Jewishness of the Israeli state. And on this subject he does not mince his words. Commendably, he does not use “Zionist” as a proxy for “Jewish.” He states, unequivocally, that, as far as he is concerned, this demand is totally unreasonable, and he tells us why.
First, he argues that to accept Israel as a Jewish state is to acquiesce in “the Jewish-Israeli narrative” — meaning that Israel was established (he would say unjustly) by the UN as the nation-state of the Jews. Second, he raises the implausible spectre that, once recognised as a Jewish state, Israel might expel all its Arab citizens.
But his third argument is much less implausible: that, in return for guaranteeing the rights of Arab minorities in a Jewish state, the US might insist that the Palestinian Arabs give similar guarantees for Jewish minorities in a Palestinian state. This is quite clearly something that Jarbawi is not prepared to concede: that Jews might have rights (including the right of settlement) in an independent Palestine. I am bound to ask whether, therefore, any Jew would feel safe living in a Palestinian state, and if not, why not?
Finally, Jarbawi reiterates the argument that recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would preclude the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees, which “right” the Arab world sees as a potent lever that will assist in dismantling the Jewish state altogether.
So Jarbawi seems unwilling to concede even the most basic rights for Jews in a Palestinian state that would (if he had his way) encompass the whole of Israel, within as well as beyond the Green Line. At least we cannot say that we have not been warned.