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The Demand for "Recognition-Plus" -- Bibi's New Pretext for Not Pursuing Peace

September 9, 1993 -- the date that the PLO officially and formally recognized Israel's right to exist in peace and security, and in return Israel recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people -- is a day that stands out in my memory.   As a US Foreign Service officer serving in Jerusalem during that period, I will never forget the palpable feeling of hope and anticipation that was in the air.

What is entirely absent from my memory is the recollection of any Israeli narrative at the time saying: "Sorry Mr. Arafat, but this recognition isn't good enough.  What we actually need is your formal endorsement of Israel as a Jewish state.  If you can't do that, then your recognition of Israel doesn't count."

It is absent not because my memory is faulty, but because this narrative simply didn't exist.  Yitzhak Rabin did not say "thanks, but no thanks;" nor did Israelis.  Everyone understood that the demand of the Palestinians was and had always been: recognize Israel's right to exist (or some slight variation thereof).   The historic September 9th declaration achieved exactly that.  The demand that the Palestinians "recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state" - or what hereafter will be known as "recognition-plus" - came much later.

Why didn't Rabin go for "recognition-plus" in 1993?  Indeed, why did this formula not come up in any real way until 2006 (in the context of Congressional efforts to place restrictions on any relations with Hamas), and then again in late 2007, in the context of the Annapolis conference?  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this new condition - raised again last week by Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu - is nothing more than a ruse to avoid peace negotiations.  It didn't come up in 1993 because Rabin, unlike some of his successors, wasn't looking for such excuses.  The fact that the most ardent Israeli (and American) advocates of the "recognition-plus" formula are also some of the most ardent opponents of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement (or at least any agreement that would ever be acceptable to Palestinians) is clearly not a coincidence.

The heart of the issue is this: how Israel defines itself, how it characterizes itself to the world and to its people, is an internal Israeli matter, something that is between the government of Israel and its citizens.  This is not to say that is an easy issue - Israel today is struggling with a serious national identity crisis.  It is wrestling with a profoundly difficult question:  how to be both a Jewish state and a democratic state, given that 20% of the population is ethnically Palestinian and an additional percentage is also not Jewish.  The success of ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party in the last elections - running on an overtly racist platform that embraces "loyalty oaths" for all citizens and calls for the excising of Arab areas of the country in exchange for West Bank settlements - underscores the extent to which this struggle is at the heart of the current Israeli zeitgeist.

Viewed in this context, Bibi's decision to trot out the "recognition-plus" demand at this time is a textbook case of populist politics.   The decision is also wholly consistent with the approach of a Prime Minister who from day one in office (and even before) has refused to endorse the two-state solution.  As a result, he is under intense US and international pressure to back down from this politically anachronistic position - a position that, in an awkward turn of events, leaves the government of Israel out of compliance with the conditions the Quartet set for Hamas (conditions that were formulated, in part, based on the notion that for any party to be considered legitimate in the Israeli-Arab political arena, they must accept the two-state solution).

Desperate for a way out of this mess, the "recognition-plus" formula could be Bibi's salvation.  If he can get the world to buy this new demand, and then the Palestinians (predictably) refuse to meet it, he can make the case that he is ready to move forward to a peace agreement, but it is the Palestinians who are proving to be unreasonable and intransigent.

No need to mention that "recognition-plus" is a new and nonsensical demand.  No need to mention that neither Egypt nor Jordan (nor the PLO) was asked to meet this condition.

No need to mention that for Palestinians, this demand is politically awkward in the extreme, in effect asking them to endorse the marginalizing of 20% of the population of Israel - a population that did not vote in Palestinian elections and which the PA in no way represents.  Indeed, for Palestinian citizens of Israel, the demand for the PA to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is understood as a demand for the PA to deny, on the behalf of these 20% of Israel's citizens, their right to fight for equal rights in Israel.   As one Palestinian citizen of Israel wrote in December 2007, "This is not a matter of semantics. If Israel's demand is granted, the inequality that we face as Palestinians--roughly 20 percent of Israel's population--will become permanent."

Fortunately, it appears the Obama Administration has not fallen for Bibi's ploy and has rejected the "recognition-plus" demand.  Hopefully President Obama, Secretary Clinton and Senator Mitchell will hold firm in the face of this and the inevitable future stalling tactics and red herrings Bibi and his colleagues will come up with.  Hopefully the U.S. Congress will back them in doing so.

Finally, it should be recalled that at the time of the Annapolis conference, when the political climate in Israel was somewhat more positive, Israeli pollsters asked Israelis whether they felt the Palestinians should be required to recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a condition for negotiations.  A full three-quarters (75%) said they should not.