Words don't matter. That's what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said for many years about Palestinian promises of peace. What matters is what the Palestinians do. To achieve statehood, they must define clear borders, end legal claims to Israeli land, and help secure Israel against terrorism.
But now that Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is delivering security and pressing for sovereign borders in an appeal to the United Nations, Netanyahu's attitude has changed. The prime minister is finding new reasons to impede or complicate the quest for Palestinian statehood, based on Abbas' words, not his deeds. It's a cynical game of semantics.
On Friday, as both men spoke at the U.N., Netanyahu tried to exploit four key terms:
1. Negotiate. In his speech, Netanyahu framed Abbas' request for U.N. recognition as evidence that "'the Palestinians have refused to negotiate" with Israel. "We need to have real security arrangements, which the Palestinians simply refuse to negotiate with us," said Netanyahu.
Nonsense. The P.A. has been negotiating with Israel all along. They just don't call it negotiation. Their emissaries meet backstage to negotiate terms of negotiation. It's stubborn, slow, often petty, and seldom productive. But it's still negotiation. In recent months, Abbas has met secretly with Israeli President Shimon Peres at least four times to negotiate possible negotiations.
The Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition is itself a negotiating strategy: Abbas hopes it will give him leverage in talks with Israel. He said so in his speech: U.N. recognition "enhances the chances of success of the negotiations." Abbas blamed the breakdown of talks on Israel's refusal to accept "terms of reference for the negotiations." In other words, Abbas is trying to negotiate better terms for negotiation.
2. Jewish state. Netanyahu told the U.N. that "the core of the conflict has always been and unfortunately remains the refusal of the Palestinians to recognize a Jewish state in any border." More nonsense. The "Jewish state" formula is an issue Netanyahu cooked up in the last couple of years. In 1993, the Palestinian Liberation Organization recognized "the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security." Abbas has reaffirmed this commitment. So Netanyahu has tacked on an additional demand: The recognition must specify Israel's Jewish character.
Why? How Israel defines its religiosity is none of Palestine's business. The only aspects of Israeli statehood Palestine is obliged to affirm are what it has already agreed to: peace and security. So why is Netanyahu hell-bent on the "Jewish" part? Apparently because he thinks it will preclude the asserted right of Palestinians to return to Israeli land they fled in 1948. "We just don't want the Palestinians to try to change the Jewish character of our state," he told the U.N. "We want them to give up the fantasy of flooding Israel with millions of Palestinians."
If that's the issue, then say so. Don't paper it over with this "Jewish state" stuff. Three million Palestinians live in Jordan, and many, if not most, would be eligible for a right of return to Israel. Yet Israel's 1994 peace treaty with Jordan includes no acknowledgment of a Jewish state. So you don't need "Jewish state" language to make peace or avert a flood of Palestinians. You just need to negotiate the right of return, or lack thereof.
3. 1948. In his speech, Abbas recalled the "Nakba" (catastrophe) of 1948, in which Palestinians "were forced to leave their homes and their towns" during Israel's war of independence. He told the U.N.: "After 63 years of suffering of the ongoing Nakba: Enough. It is time for the Palestinian people to gain their freedom and independence." These remarks echoed what Abbas said two weeks earlier: "We have been under occupation for 63 years."