Linda Heard
Arab News
September 20, 2010 - 12:00am

On Sunday, Israel’s unsavory Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened Palestinian negotiators that if they refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Arab Israelis could have their rights to citizenship withdrawn. This “needs to be one of the central issues on the negotiating table in light of the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” he told his Cabinet colleagues.

Besides this blatant discrimination of almost one quarter of Israel’s population on the basis of their non-Jewish identity — which anywhere else would be considered a gross example of bigotry — this is yet another sign that current face-to-face peace talks are meant to go precisely nowhere.

“No loyalty, no citizenship” is Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party slogan. But his efforts to place a sword over the heads of Israel’s Arab population will have the opposite effect. Loyalty is a two-way street. Citizens everywhere are only loyal to states that treat them fairly irrespective of their roots or beliefs. Arab Israelis are already being treated as third-class citizens and, according to a 2007 survey, more than 50 percent of Israelis believe the state should encourage them to move elsewhere.

I must admit that I’ve been reluctant to write about these Clinton-brokered talks because to my mind they’re little more than a sham; a sideshow put on by Tel Aviv and Washington as a sop to the concerns of the international community. But I decided to watch and wait so that I could evaluate the respective parties’ commitment to succeed, which until now is zilch.

Firstly, Netanyahu has never backed the concept of a Palestinian state other than one that is economically dependent on Israel, completely demilitarized and without any claim to Jerusalem as its capital. But even that vulnerable entity, whose sovereignty would exist on paper only, would have to be forced upon him.

HE would prefer to pacify the Palestinian West Bank residents with increased economic opportunities and maintain Gaza under blockade at his government’s pleasure. It might be a little inconvenient to have homemade rockets lobbed at the Negev by Gaza militants from time to time, but with few resultant deaths or injuries it’s a price worth paying. In that way, a door will remain open to Israel’s long-held expansionist ambitions.

Netanyahu is a wily politician and a consummate actor, who doesn’t mind investing in a couple of flowery speeches and a few smiling handshakes with Mahmoud Abbas if they help to quell the international heat. It fleetingly occurred to me that he may have had a genuine change of heart but a leopard cannot change its spots.

Not only has the Israeli prime minister not shown goodwill by freezing West Bank settlement expansion for the foreseeable future, he has thrown a massive spoke in the wheel by demanding Palestinian recognition that Israel is and will remain the Jewish state. This may sound like a reasonable demand on a superficial level. Israel already exists as a self-ascribed Jewish state, so why are the Palestinians being so obstinate you might be tempted to think? But it’s much more complicated than that.

Once Abbas accepts that condition, he demolishes any right of return for Palestinian refugees in the diaspora and precludes any future claims to the land of historic Palestine under occupation. Such acceptance could also impinge on the citizenship rights of Israeli Arabs in the future.

Moreover, if the Palestinian leadership accedes to this condition it cannot be withdrawn even if a Palestinian state fails to materialize. There are also ideological and legal considerations that must be taken into account before any Palestinian leader could recognize Israel as a state for Jews only.

Furthermore, there is no precedent for such a state as the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who attended the recent talks held at the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh, points out. “I say to Israeli citizens, including Jews, Muslims and others, that there is no such thing as a state in which all the citizens are Jews,” he said. “In Egypt, we have Muslims, Christians and Jews and there is no problem. When they wanted to establish a Muslim state in Kosovo, the world came out against it because it did not want a Muslim state in central Europe.”

Netanyahu knows only too well that his demand is a hot potato and that’s exactly why he has thrown it in to the pot. He is virtually tying Palestinian hands so that he can emerge from the talks as the wronged party who tried his very best, which will not, of course, fool most of the world but will be eagerly lapped up in the US. I can see how that will be spun on Zionist websites now. “Once again, Palestinians have shown that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” will be their predictable propagandist line.

Let’s suppose for a moment that the Israeli government is sincere in its efforts toward cementing a two-state solution. The sad fact is that it doesn’t have a peace partner who speaks for the majority of Palestinians. As long as Fatah and Hamas are at daggers drawn there is no guarantee that any final status settlement would be accepted even if Abbas decides to append his signature on the dotted line. Instead of sitting down with Israelis and Americans, Abbas should be meeting with Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh to resolve their differences. Unless Palestinians can speak with one voice talks like these are doomed before they begin.

Worst of all, the Palestinians are so diplomatically and militarily weak that they have few cards to put on the table. It’s as though they are novices playing a game of chess with grand masters with all the moves and all the power. They desperately need the entire Arab world to line up beside them in the way that Washington is unconditionally bound to Israel’s interests.

What are Arab leaders waiting for: Israel’s destruction of the Haram Al-Sharif to make way for the third Jewish Temple or further Israeli land grabs that will ultimately attack the viability of a Palestinian state unless it can fit on a postage stamp? If they don’t get involved soon, it will be too late!


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017