As Israel celebrates the 66th anniversary of its founding, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to introduce an addition to the country’s basic laws — the closest thing it has to a constitution — to “legally anchor” Israel as a Jewish state.
It seems that Mr. Netanyahu wishes to define the country as the nation-state solely of the Jews. But if this is a point of Zionist principle, then why has it taken 66 years to implement?
Israel’s first right-wing prime minister, Menachem Begin, did not make the 1979 Camp David agreement with Egypt conditional on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Nor did Yitzhak Rabin, the Labor Party prime minister who signed the peace accord with Jordan in 1994.
Mr. Netanyahu himself did not advocate recognition of Israel as “a Jewish state” during his first period of office between 1996 and 1999. Why now?
This demand appears to be more a subtle weapon in Mr. Netanyahu’s public relations arsenal rather than a genuine declaration of belief in the Zionist experiment. The suggestion that Israel should be recognized as a Jewish state emerged clearly after the Israeli army’s offensive in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, in late 2008 and early 2009. It was broached again after the Palestinian Authority attempted to seek United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood.
During the last decade there have been occasional replacements of “Israel” with “the Jewish state” by American leaders and diplomats — a shorthand term rather than a political statement of any consequence. Barack Obama used the phrase during his first election campaign and in a speech to the United Nations in September 2010. Similarly, the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and his minister of foreign affairs, Tzipi Livni, occasionally used the phrase during their terms of office. Yet Ms. Livni, who is currently in charge of the negotiations with the Palestinians, was vociferous last week in her opposition to Mr. Netanyahu’s proposition.
It seems that the idea only became a matter of apparent Zionist conviction with the formation of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition with far-right parties in 2009. Back then, there was concerted criticism of Mr. Netanyahu’s approach by Israeli public figures. The president, Shimon Peres, was apparently not in favor while Gabriela Shalev, the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, bluntly commented that “the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is superfluous; there are no preconditions for talks with Palestinians.”
Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad, succinctly pointed out that while Israel benefits from ongoing recognition by the outside world, “our Jewishness does not depend on them.”
It is significant that Mr. Netanyahu’s most recent push to define Israel as a “Jewish state” comes directly after the breakdown of talks with the Palestinians and the threat of a newly united Palestinian leadership that could include the Islamist party, Hamas.
Jews living in the diaspora often use the terms “Israel” and “Jewish state” interchangeably, without a second thought. But when it comes to diplomacy, such a formal declaration by the Israeli government would clearly make resuming the talks with the Palestinians significantly more difficult.
Mr. Netanyahu told the United States Congress in May 2011 that the six words “I will accept a Jewish state” would change history. This was confidently delivered to enthusiastic applause, but other supporters of Israel did not see it with such wide-eyed rapture. After all, what was the Oslo Accord — the difficult handshake between Yasir Arafat and Mr. Rabin on the White House lawn — all about, if not mutual recognition.
For many of the early Zionists, a “Jewish state” meant a state with a Jewish majority in which the Jews could exercise national self-determination. It did not mean an exclusive state of only Jews. Nor did it suggest an implicit “transfer” of its Arab inhabitants. Even Vladimir Jabotinsky, the revered forefather of the Israeli right and a close associate of Mr. Netanyahu’s father, remarked in January 1938 that “it must be hateful for any Jew to think that the rebirth of a Jewish state should ever be linked with such an odious suggestion as the removal of its non-Jewish citizens.”
To his credit, Mr. Netanyahu has quashed several attempts by members of his own party and those further to his right to practice the politics of exclusion, but he has also continued his policy of conducting negotiations with the Palestinians in a halting fashion that has promoted the politics of stagnation.
Moreover Mr. Netanyahu’s move is a nod to the Israeli far right, which desires a Greater Israel and utilizes recognition of the state’s Jewishness as a step in this direction. In the context of the unresolved situation on the West Bank, it purports to elevate Jewishness over democratic norms.
In May 1948, a democratic republic arose in the Land of Israel and it was greeted by a people who had survived to dance on Hitler’s grave. It is unfortunate that the principles behind that historic event have now been relegated to a mere shot in the megaphone war.
In 1902, Theodor Herzl, the founding father of modern Zionism, wrote a novel, “Altneuland,” which depicted a harmonious society of Jews and Arabs. When a Jewish nationalist character seeks to ban non-Jews from voting, Mr. Herzl prevents him from succeeding.
Almost a century ago, Vladimir Jabotinsky preached a return to Herzlian principles in place of political shadowboxing. Mr Netanyahu should heed that call in 2014.
Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and the author of A History of Modern Israel and the forthcoming book The Rise of the Israeli Right.