A Generous Offer From Bibi?

Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren took to the New York Times today to make the case for Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest gambit in the current “peace process”: offering to freeze settlement construction in exchange for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state”. There are a few things to be said about this.

The first is that the odds of Bibi actually having the political stomach to follow through on a true settlement freeze are negligible. As Israeli hawk Yossi Klein Halevi suggests today in the Wall Street Journal, the settlers are by now entrenched enough in the IDF and within Israeli society that there is little desire for “a traumatic confrontation with settlers that could rupture the military and lead to civil war.” Netanyahu’s gambit is clearly a bluff, based on the recognition that Palestinians will never recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” — a poison-pill condition that was not part of previous peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan — and designed to shift blame for the failure of peace talks to the Palestinian side. (We might also note that Oren plays rather fast and loose with the facts, for instance by writing that “Israel recognizes the existence of a Palestinian people with an inalienable right to self-determination in its homeland.” This would certainly be news to the Palestinians.)

The second point is that we need to understand why Palestinians will not recognize Israel as a “Jewish state”. Oren generally suggests that the failure to do so is simply rooted in anti-Semitism, but he hints at the truth by noting that “recognizing Israel as a Jewish state also means accepting that the millions of them residing in Arab countries would be resettled within a future Palestinian state and not within Israel.” The main upshot of recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state” would be to preempt UN Resolution 242, which calls for a “just settlement of the refugee problem,” and to declare ahead of time that no refugees would be allowed to return to their homes. (Of course, it’s likely that any final peace settlement would not include a full-fledged right of return for all the refugees — but the exact contours of what constitutes a “just settlement” are to be decided in negotiations, not simply bargained away ahead of time.)

And in return for giving up on one of the central issues at stake, what is Oren actually offering the Palestinians? That Israel will halt settlement construction — not remove settlements, but simply halt construction, almost certainly subject to an exception for “natural growth” that will vitiate most of the freeze’s effectiveness. Here we should simply note that halting the settlement of the West Bank is not a generous “concession,” but simply Israel’s minimal obligation under international law; the Fourth Geneva Convention stipulates that an “Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Thus we see the upshot of Bibi’s “generous offer”: give up your rights under international law, and in return we’ll stop violating international law. It’s hardly surprising that no Palestinian government would find such a proposal appetizing.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.