When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered to press his cabinet to impose a freeze of settlement construction if Palestinians would recognize Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, I had mixed feelings about the proposal. After all, there is little doubt that Israel is the Jewish homeland. The United Nations established it that way, and the international community recognizes it as such. Why ask Palestinians, who dislike that fact, to restate the obvious?
And yet, the intensity of the Palestinians' rejection of the idea has uncovered such a fundamental challenge to the "two-state solution" that I am now persuaded that true, lasting peace may never come unless Palestinians and other Arabs openly accept Israel as a Jewish nation.
Jewish nation, of course, does not mean special rights for Jews or second-class status for non-Jews. Israel is a democratic country whose laws clearly spell out equality for all citizens. Like other democracies, it doesn't always achieve its goal of equality, but its courts, citizens groups and others continuously work to reach it.
And Israel is hardly the only country that includes a religion or nationality in its self-definition. Scores of states embrace a religion or a nationality while maintaining diversity and striving for equal rights. Jewish citizens of the United Kingdom are loyal to a country whose flag has not one but two Christian crosses. There are dozens of self-described Christian countries, most of them fully functioning democracies with minority rights. The democracy-deprived Arab League counts 22 members self-identified as Arab states, while 55 countries define themselves as Muslim nations belonging to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Only one minuscule nation on Earth is a Jewish state.
For almost a decade the United States has urged Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Last year, President Barack Obama told the U.N. General Assembly that, "The goal is clear, two states living side by side in peace and security - a Jewish state of Israel, with true security for all Israelis."
And yet, when Netanyahu - like his predecessor - asked Palestinians to recognize the Jewish character of Israel, not as a prerequisite for talks but as a trust-building measure, their almost-instantaneous reaction was vehement rejection. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared, "We will never sign an agreement recognizing a Jewish state." Chief negotiator Saeb Erakat insisted, "This is completely rejected." And when a Palestinian official hinted it might be doable, he was immediately overruled. Nabil Sha'ath, an adviser to Abbas, noted, "We are not going to do it. Forget it."
Palestinians seem unwilling to even recognize Israel as the state of another "people." PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad furiously stormed out of a meeting with Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Daniel Ayalon after Ayalon suggested a summary of their discussions include the term "two states for two peoples" instead of just "two states."
As long as Palestinians continue denying the ancient connection between Jews and the land of Israel, as long as they reject the Jewish people's right to a state, any peace agreement will be written in sand at the edge of the ocean: The smallest tide will wash it away.
Israelis want to know that if they make the sacrifices required for peace and a Palestinian state is created, the conflict will have been resolved; that peace will mean the end of efforts to destroy the Jewish state. As long as Palestinians and others refuse to accept that Israel is, indeed, a Jewish state, that Jews have a right to their own country, there can be no certainty that those sinister designs will end.
The rejection of Netanyahu's proposal - and of American demands - for such recognition, came at the same time as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the Israeli-Lebanese border to reaffirm his call for Israel's destruction. Lebanon's Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, told the cheering crowd that "President Ahmadinejad is right when he says Israel is illegitimate and should cease to exist." A recent poll in the United States found that more than three-quarters of American Jews believe the goal of the Arabs "is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel."
Whether Palestinians like it or not, Israel already is the national state of the Jewish people. Israelis have already recognized the right of Palestinians to have their state. As long as Palestinians fail to recognize the right of the Jewish people to have theirs, true peace may never come.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald. Readers may send her e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.