Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
There’s a north London watering hole called The Craft Beer Co where the management persist in imposing a pointless and irritating rule on their customers. Patrons are forbidden from sitting at the bar on the bar stools the pub has chosen to purchase.
As he travelled to Jerusalem hawking his new framework agreement, John Kerry must have felt he’d stumbled in there last week when presented with Binyamin Netanyahu’s latest demand, that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a “Jewish state,” which will achieve nothing except irritate the most peace-minded Palestinian leadership there is likely to be.
There might appear to be good reasons for the Israeli Prime Minister’s demand. Israel, though a secular and multi-ethnic country, a fifth of whose citizens are Arab, was created as the state for the Jewish people. It is of course a central tenet of the Zionist movement that Jews will only be able to protect themselves if they have their own country, and don’t depend on someone else’s government to escape persecution.
Indeed, Israel is still surrounded by neighbours who once had very significant Jewish populations but most of which are now officially, though less emphatically than they used to be, anti-semitic and who are, shall we say, less than assiduous in preventing money and weapons from reaching terrorist organisations.
Even the Prime Minister of once friendly Turkey, exercising Anelkan levels of subtlety, has taken to blaming his troubles on “the interest-rate lobby.” To have the Palestinians recognise, explicitly, the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the region would surely have important symbolic value. Other Arab states would be under pressure to accept the Palestinian line on this, and non-Arab Muslim countries might eventually follow. Couldn’t it be part of ‘normalising’ Israel’s place in the Middle East, and to go beyond the starched peace agreements that Jerusalem has with Cairo and Amman?
Yet symbols have a much exaggerated importance. In this conflict, the advantage stays with the side that gives up symbols to defend “facts on the ground,” and Israel’s relative success in prosecuting it owes a lot to bringing a practical cast of mind to bear to a region still more fond of romantic gestures and grandstanding. Had Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not drawn so much attention with his Holocaust denial, Iran might well already have quietly got itself a bomb; had Mohammed Morsi made some deft concessions last summer, he could have staved off that military coup. In fact, the Palestinians could confine themselves to recognising that any major change to the peace agreement would need to be separately be approved by majorities in Israel and Palestine. Efficient Palestinian police, reliable means of securing the West Bank’s air space, and anti-missile defences backed up by the threat of military retaliation against rejectionists will do more to secure both Israel and peace than any gesture of recognition.
The demand that Israel be recognised as a Jewish state serves to mirror the most unrealistic of the three Palestinian aims, which they refer to as the “right of return”, by which they mean the insistence that the descendants of those who left or were expelled (the history is of course a matter of controversy; those as obsessed with the region as I am are free consult Benny Morris’s 604 page epic, and make up their own minds). Justified or not, this will never happen, would only lead to murderous and interminable war, and the Palestinian leadership knows it.
Mr Netanyahu knows all this too of course, and is thoughtful and cautious when he needs to be. The recognition is something that might appear plausible to all but Western European post-nationalists, but is actually too much for Ramallah to swallow without achieving anything concrete for Israeli security. Could this in fact be a ‘deliberate mistake’, designed to prolong his place at the head of a coalition government around half of whose supporters are opposed to a deal?