Analysis & Opinions - The Providence Journal

What Israel Needs from Palestinians

| July 26, 2009

ISRAEL'S RECENT DEMAND that the Palestinians recognize it as "the nation state of the Jewish people" should not be dismissed as yet another delaying maneuver aimed at stalling the peace process. Although the demand was presented by Israel's hawkish prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, it is solidly rooted in the mainstream of Israeli public opinion. The need for such recognition was previously raised by the dovish (then-Foreign Minister) Tzippi Livni during the 2008 Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and it even appeared in the 2003 Israeli-Palestinian Geneva model peace agreement.

Arab leaders were outraged by the demand: Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, charged that it "sabotages the chances for peace." The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, called Netanyahu's speech "a blow to [President] Obama's peace efforts," declaring that "even in a thousand years" Israelis would not be able to find any Palestinians who would agree to their stipulations.

Yet, the demand for recognition reflects a deep truth about Israelis, a truth that should please the Arab side, not anger it. In another context the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor explained: "Our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence" and that recognition by others is so crucial that "a group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirrors back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves." The Israelis, if one is to believe that Netanyahu's plea is genuine, need Palestinian reaffirmation of their identity as a national collective worthy of the right of self-determination.

This is good news for those who support stable and lasting peace in the region. Netanyahu's demand is, in effect, an Israeli admission that its essential needs cannot be satisfied by force alone. After all, true recognition cannot be extracted by coercion.

The stated Israeli need for Palestinian affirmation equates, somewhat, the power imbalance between the warring parties. Israeli military superiority and severe Palestinian weaknesses are usually seen as a constant barrier to a stable deal. Now, as admitted by Israel's prime minister, the weak Palestinians possess a significant asset that Israel needs, and cannot secure by military means. Such an admission, if understood correctly, may well instill some humility in the Israelis and a sense of empowerment in the Palestinians.

It is also worth noting that, beyond their importance in the constitution of identity, acts of recognition have a more straightforward practical significance. They can reduce violence and resentment.

Think of the most humdrum of contexts: traffic. You are driving quietly along when another driver cuts you off. You angrily lay on the horn. Suppose the delinquent driver, acknowledging his mistake, extends an open palm out of the window. Alternatively suppose he makes an obscene gesture at you, defying his responsibility for the near accident. Which of these responses, acknowledgement or the lack thereof, is more likely to result in road rage?

The demand for recognition as articulated by Prime Minister Netanyahu leaves more to be desired. While he demanded recognition for Israel, he granted none to the Palestinians. If Israel's prime minister wanted the most basic aspects of his people's national story acknowledged, he should have reciprocated in kind.

There was not a word in his speech about Israel's responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, about the Palestinians' affinity for Jerusalem, about the indignities, humiliations and practical difficulties involved in living under Israel's occupation and about how Israel's settlements, even if not at the root of the conflict, have impeded its resolution.

Surely, there is more to peace than the mutual granting of acknowledgment and recognition. Security arrangements, the creation of economic opportunity, territorial compromises, and agreements on how to share the natural resources that both sides depend on are all vital. But these practical arrangements cannot eclipse the need for mutual recognition. Rather, they depend on such recognition for their viability.

If they do not recognize each other, Jews and Palestinians will continue to fight. Moreover, if they do not recognize each other they will never quite become who they claim to be.

Nir Eisikovits is the director of Suffolk University's Program in Ethics and Public Policy. His forthcoming book is Sympathizing with the Enemy: Reconciliation, Negotiation and Transitional Justice. Ehud Eiran is a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Eisikovits, Nir and Ehud Eiran.“What Israel Needs from Palestinians.” The Providence Journal, July 26, 2009.

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