Raef Zreik writes:
During its peace negotiations with Egypt and Jordan, Israel did not ask for recognition for itself as a Jewish state, and such recognition does not appear in the peace treaties with either state. With regard to negotiations with the PLO for the final status of the Palestinian territories, the demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state or as a state of the Jewish people (which are different concepts) was not on the table at the 1991 Madrid conference, during the Oslo talks of 1992–93, or even at the failed Camp David summit of July 2000, or the subsequent negotiations at Taba in early 2001. This demand was put forward for the first time in a negotiation context at the 2007 Annapolis conference by the Olmert government in its last days in office. The current Israeli government, by contrast, has made recognition of the Jewishness of the state one of its principal negotiating demands, on occasion even presenting it as a precondition for the negotiations themselves.
Nor has the growing emphasis on the demand been restricted to the negotiating sphere. Projects aimed at affirming the Jewishness of the state through legislation have increased in recent years: amendments to the citizenship law require persons seeking Israeli citizenship to swear allegiance to a Jewish and democratic Israel and limit family unification between Israeli Palestinians and their spouses from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Proposals for a population swap in the context of a final settlement are becoming increasingly legitimate in the public discourse, while amendments to other legislation include restricting Palestinian citizens’ commemoration of the Nakba and de facto restrictions on the right of Palestinian citizens to purchase homes in (Jewish) communal settlements.
So what is happening here? At the level of Israeli domestic politics, and with regard to the now-stalled negotiations with Palestinians, one could say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been keen to divert attention from divisive issues in Israeli society, such as settlements and Jerusalem, to nondivisive issues such as the Jewish state. Netanyahu knows well that negotiations may fail, but he would prefer that they fail by being dashed against the rock of the Jewish state, which enjoys absolute majority Jewish support, than because of the absence of a settlement freeze, which would have led to claims that had there been one, there might have been progress in the negotiations and possibly even a peace agreement. According to this line of reasoning, Netanyahu’s demands for the recognition of the Jewishness of the state is a tactical, even a partisan maneuver—his way of torpedoing the negotiations over an issue that is not controversial in Israeli society so as to consolidate his position not only as the leader of the Israeli Right but also as the leader of Israeli society as a whole.
In my opinion, however, the above analysis does not fully explain the stridency of the Israeli discourse on the subject of the Jewish state. This essay is an attempt to offer a more penetrating analysis, one that examines the discourse on the Jewish state to reveal the internal dynamics and horizons of its evolution.