The Economist (Analysis)
October 12, 2010 - 12:00am

ISRAEL was defined as the "Jewish state" in 1947 by the UN resolution that brought it into being. But now Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wants the Palestinians to confirm it: both the Palestinian leaders who are supposed to be negotiating with him over a state of their own, and individual Palestinians (and other non-Jews) who apply for Israeli citizenship.

Mr Netanyahu announced on October 11th that if the Palestinian Authority recognised Israel as "the national state of the Jewish People" he would in turn recommend to his cabinet extending the lapsed freeze on settlement-building in the occupied Palestinian territories. (The Palestinian Authority, backed by the Arab League, refuses to negotiate unless the freeze is resumed.)

The day before, at the prime minister’s urging, the Israeli cabinet approved a new bill requiring citizenship seekers to swear allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state".

Both moves have been criticised in the Israeli peace camp as cheap gimmickry (the mild critics), outright demagoguery (the moderate critics) or incipient fascism (the severe critics). The criticisms overlap. The term "fascism" was used not just at a demonstration against the bill on October 10th by artists, writers and intellectuals in Tel Aviv, but also by a government minister, a member of the Labour party.

But that same minister—and this attests to the exquisite complexity, shading into absurdity, of the whole issue—suggested the next day that Mr Netanyahu’s pandering to his rightist-chauvinistic coalition allies "may all be in preparation for the big peace step".

The "loyalty oath" is a long-time demand of the foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party. Indeed, this mainly Russian immigrant party wants the oath extended to all citizens, and specifically to the Palestinian citizens who comprise almost one-fifth of the Israeli populace. (A measure of the absurdity is the fact that one-quarter or more of the Russian immigrants are themselves not recognised as Jewish under the Israeli laws of personal status.)

The demand for recognition of Israel as the Jewish nation-state is Mr Netanyahu’s own long-time hobby-horse. But it is enthusiastically espoused by rightist and especially religious elements in his government.

The nature of demagoguery is that it immediately arouses counter-demagoguery. Palestinian politicians, in the Palestinian Authority (PA) and in the Israeli Knesset, have poured gallons of vitriol on both of Mr Netanyahu’s demands, branding the one as racist and discriminatory and the other as a provocative ploy to prevent peace talks.

Privately, Palestinians say that anyone seeking citizenship will take the oath anyway. The definition "Jewish and democratic" appears, after all, in several existing Israeli laws.

Privately, too, PA officials explain that they might consider recognising Israel as the Jewish state—thereby effectively forgoing the Palestinian Right of Return—but only in the context of a comprehensive peace package, not in exchange for a tiny step forward in the form of a two-month extension of the settlement-building freeze.

Perhaps the vitriol is part of the game-plan. The more Palestinian anger, the greater the gratification on the Israeli far-right, the easier, politically, for Mr Netanyahu to go back to negotiating. More likely, though, as the rhetoric of demagoguery rises, the prospects of negotiation dim.

That is a great shame. The same Palestinian rejection of Mr Netanyahu’s recognition demand, couched not slightingly but in positive and statesmanlike language, could hoist him on his own petard. If President Mahmoud Abbas were to say, let’s get back to the talks and talk about recognition, too, Mr Netanyahu would be hard put to keep stalling.


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