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What the Mideast peace process needs

Yonatan Touval is a foreign policy analyst based in Tel Aviv. He has worked with several Israeli nongovernmental organizations dedicated to advancing final-status agreements between Israel and its neighbors.

As Secretary of State John Kerry hammers out the principles for an Israeli-Palestinian “framework agreement,” many are speculating that he has formally adopted Jerusalem’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The importance of this step — both historically and for the future of U.S. peacemaking efforts in the region — should not be underestimated.

There are good reasons why the U.S. position on this issue has been slow to evolve. For one thing, the Israeli demand is relatively new; it was first explicitly tied to negotiations by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2007 and later adopted by Benjamin Netanyahu. Its novelty, coupled with the fact that Olmert dropped his insistence once good-faith negotiations with the Palestinians got underway during his last months in office, has made the demand seem, at best, superfluous and, at worst, like an attempt to stonewall progress.

Nevertheless, the United States took a significant step when, in a May 2011 speech, President Obama defined his vision for peace with the words “Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people.” The language made clear that, whatever the Obama administration thought were Netanyahu’s motivations, it accepted that Israel’s demand could no longer be ignored.

Now the matter of how that demand proceeds becomes all-important. Indeed, depending on its exact framing, the U.S. position could either lead to a major breakthrough or constitute a diplomatic blunder that would reflect profound insensitivity to the symbolic dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and risk burying the prospects for an agreement for some time to come.

Having already accorded Israel formal diplomatic recognition in 1993, the Palestinians have a strong case for objecting to the demand that they now recognize Israel’s national and cultural identity as well. Recognition of another state’s self-identity has no place in standard diplomatic practice. And for the Palestinians to extend such recognition to Israel poses a challenge beyond the usual argument that doing so would constitute a political slap in the face to the 1.6 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel. For at its core, Israel’s Jewishness is a constitutive element of the Zionist national narrative — a narrative that, for historical reasons, is and perhaps forever will be incommensurable with that of the Palestinians.

Israel didn’t become Jewish by magic. It did so through a long-fought battle, waged on the diplomatic world stage as well as on the ground. Among the consequences of that battle: Some 600,000 Palestinians either fled or were expelled from the newly created state of Israel in 1948 and became refugees. In other words, Israel’s Jewish identity is inextricable from what the Palestinians call the Nakba, or the “catastrophe.”

Yet if it is wrong that, as Netanyahu has recently said, Palestinian recognition of Israel’s Jewishness should be the “minimal requirement for peace,” such recognition would still mark a profoundly symbolic act of reconciliation. For such reconciliation to take place, however, Israel would have to be ready to reciprocate with an equally conciliatory gesture. And there is no more fitting gesture than Israeli recognition of Palestinian suffering.

Such a recognition need not be difficult to fathom. Numerous formulations — official and unofficial — have been proposed over the years. At the Taba talks of January 2001, the Israeli team drafted a document whose operative phrase — “The State of Israel solemnly expresses its sorrow for the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees, their suffering and losses” — was considered extremely far-reaching. Since then, Israeli society has grown more at ease with competing narratives to the traditional Zionist one. A poll conducted last month, for instance, found that two-thirds of Israeli Jews would like their children to learn the “Palestinian narrative” about the conflict.

The exact language of the Israeli recognition would have to be negotiated, of course. The Palestinians may well seek to obtain an explicit apology for the consequences of Israel’s establishment, something Israel would be reluctant to offer. But Israel could acknowledge Palestinian suffering without undermining its own national narrative or — as it should be rightly wary — potentially exposing itself to legal charges in international tribunals.

The United States should encourage Israel to move in this direction by tabling its own proposal for such an acknowledgment — one that might empower the Palestinians enough to reciprocate with the recognition Israel so avowedly seeks.

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