In 2007, I wrote a blog about the ludicrous comments of Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, who summarily dismissed the prospect of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. “No state in the world connects its national identity to its religious identity,” he declared.
Three years later, nothing much has changed. The Palestinian leadership continues to reject acknowledging Israel’s distinctive character, though to do so would not only recognize reality, but also give a big boost to the stalled peace talks.
As I wrote then, such a statement by Erekat is utterly preposterous. What, for example, do Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Comoros, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen have in common? You guessed it. Islam is the official religion, though many, such as Malaysia, have significant non-Muslim minorities.
And in Egypt, Shari’a, or Islamic law, is formally given a role as the wellspring of legislation. Moreover, what exactly are we to make of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an intergovernmental grouping of 57 countries, including the “State of Palestine” whose charter speaks of their “common belief” and whose goals include ensuring “the progress and well-being of their peoples and those of other Muslims the world over?” Is there any similar entity binding countries of other religions together around “common belief?”
And perhaps Mr. Erekat could explain why, if states don’t connect national and religious identities, we have countries whose formal names include the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. To be fair, Muslim countries aren’t alone in establishing state religions and seeking to associate faith and nationality.
There are countries where Buddhism, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and various Protestant denominations are the established religion. By contrast, in Israel, there is no official state religion, though the majority population and the character of the country are unquestionably Jewish, even as full protection is accorded to minority faith communities.
But Mr. Erekat’s statement isn’t just wrong; it’s also wrong-headed. If he is committed to the search for peace, he has a strange way of showing it. A settlement will only come when several conditions are met, among them recognition by the Palestinians and the larger Arab world that Israel is a Jewish state and was established, with the endorsement of the international community, to be a Jewish homeland.
Otherwise, all bets are off. The Palestinians cannot have it both ways – demand a Palestinian state, to be part of the Arab League and the OIC and to be Judenrein, and, at the same time, reject Israel as a Jewish state, insisting, hypocritically, that it be an “open” state.
That, of course, can only mean one thing: The battle to destroy Israel as we know it will continue to be waged by any means possible. Talk about a nonstarter. The late Yasser Arafat told Bill Clinton, to the president’s dismay, that the Jews had no historical link to Israel and, in particular, Jerusalem, claiming that the Temple never even existed.
Erekat’s remarks show that this unwillingness to recognize indisputable facts wasn’t limited to Arafat. It’s part of decades of willful denial.
It’s time to face reality. It’s time to grasp what Winston Churchill understood when he called the establishment of the Jewish state “an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand, or even three thousand years.” And what Jorge Garcia Granados, Guatemalan representative to the United Nations, knew when he publicly endorsed Israel’s founding because of his outrage at the time that “no Jew dare risk entering the most celebrated place of the Hebrew religion, because if he did so he might be killed [by Arabs].”
And what President Harry Truman felt when his favorite psalm, Psalm 137, moved him to identify with Zionism: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, as we remembered Zion.” And what French President Nicolas Sarkozy grasped when he spoke at an AJC breakfast of a “two-nation-state solution,” meaning a Jewish and a Palestinian state. The historic connection of the Jewish people to the land – and now the state – of Israel is as legitimate as it is unbreakable.
Israel has made a giant leap in recognizing Palestinian nationhood and the need for a Palestinian state, with all the risks it entails for Israel’s security, as a territorial answer to the needs of the Palestinian people. Now the Palestinians need to reciprocate, and the sooner the better, if the current peace process is to have a chance of success.
Will they? Hamas has already made perfectly clear where it stands, if ever there was ever any doubt. In its statement calling on the UN to apologize for the 1947 Partition Plan, Hamas said, “Palestine is Arab Islamic land, from the river to the sea, including Jerusalem. There is no room in it for the Jews.”
So it’s up to leaders like Erekat to show the world that other Palestinian voices, at long last, recognize what the Balfour Declaration, League of Nations, Peel Commission, United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, and United Nations General Assembly all expressly made clear, and what U.S. President Obama, German Chancellor Merkel, and other world leaders have asserted: There is a compelling and legitimate need for a Jewish – yes, Jewish – state in the region, living alongside other states, each with its own distinctive character. There’s no getting around it. You can’t make peace with someone whose core identity you refuse to acknowledge.