Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inserted a new inflammatory element this week into the troubled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that began Sept. 2. He "offered" to extend a moratorium on Israeli settlement construction in the Palestinian territories, if the Palestinians agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Unsurprisingly, Palestinian negotiators immediately rejected this. They pointed out that Palestinian leaders have already, as far back as the1990s, recognized the state of Israel. The specific character of the Israeli state, they noted, is a domestic Israeli matter and has no connection to the settlements problem.
Abu Nabil Abu Rudeina, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said, "We have nothing to do with the Jewishness of the state of Israel. We recognize the state of Israel."
The same point was made by Yoram Meital, an Israeli professor of Middle East studies at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in an article in Haaretz. "Legal and diplomatic recognition of the state of Israel is a necessary condition upon which a peace agreement with an Arab side is predicated. The national and cultural identity of Israeli society is an internal matter," Meital wrote. He added, "A demand that the Palestinian side recognize Israel as a Jewish state is immaterial to the forging of a peace agreement."
The steady growth of Israeli settlements - really more like sprawling suburban high-rise communities - in the Palestinian West Bank is fragmenting the land that is supposed to make up the Palestinian state. Palestinian leaders have insisted that settlement construction be halted as a condition for peace talks. Under heavy pressure from the U.S. last fall, Netanyahu agreed to a partial 10-month settlement freeze that expired on Sept. 26.
And in fact, within Israel itself the right wing's use of the "Jewish state" issue is sparking a big battle.
Netanyahu announced he is supporting a measure pushed by right-wing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman that would require anyone seeking Israeli citizenship to pledge loyalty to a "Jewish, democratic state." The measure has been widely condemned as racist, given the fact that about 20 percent of Israeli citizens today are Arab Muslims and Christians.
In an action appeal titled "Say NO to Loyalty Oaths - Protect Israeli Democracy Now," the New Israel Fund says, "NO democracy requires a loyalty oath based on religious identity. NO multicultural society can survive by insisting that ethnic minorities pledge fealty, not to the state in which they live, but to the majority culture."
The fund, which includes Israelis and international supporters of Israel, advocates "equality and democracy for all Israelis." It urges e-mails, phone calls and faxes to Netanyahu opposing the loyalty oath.
Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston puts the proposed loyalty oath number one on his list of the "top 10 worst errors Israel is about to make," calling it a "watershed measure."
In an unusual move for a newspaper column, Burston urges readers to work for defeat of the law, and even provides links to Knesset members' contact information.
The columnist also notes: "The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has compiled an extensive and informative listing of pending legislation with potentially anti-democratic consequences, including bills which could strip citizenship from people having taken part in Gaza aid flotillas and penalties for commemorating Naqba Day, the Palestinian day of mourning for the events of 1948."
Thus, Netanyahu's "offer" to the Palestinians - that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state - is probably not being taken seriously by many of his own constituents.
Various theories are being put forward about the Israeli prime minister's motivations: he is trying to appease his extreme right-wing coalition partners, he is trying to make a case that the Palestinians are the obstructionists, and/or he is just simply trying to wreck the talks.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is making strenuous efforts to keep the peace talks going. Long-time Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross is reportedly drafting a U.S. package of security assurances to try to get Netanyahu to agree to a 60-day extension of the settlement freeze.
According to foreign policy commentator Laura Rozen at politico.com, "While Netanyahu has not agreed as yet to the proposed U.S. freeze-compromise package, Israel reportedly continues to review the proposal."
Over the weekend, Arab League nations meeting in Libya voted to give the U.S. another month to try to negotiate an extension to the settlement freeze. They also endorsed the Palestinians resuming indirect talks with the Israelis, short of a new freeze deal being reached.
If the talks collapse, Palestinian leaders are talking about asking the United Nations Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with borders as they existed before the June 1967 occupation. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who met with Israeli and Palestinian officials this week, said although France preferred a negotiated two-state solution, he would not rule out such an option.
"We want to be able to soon welcome the state of Palestine to the United Nations. This is the hope and the desire of the international community, and the sooner that can happen the better," he said. "The international community cannot be satisfied with a prolonged deadlock. I therefore believe that one cannot rule out in principle the Security Council option."
Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his proposal at the opening of the winter session in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Oct. 11. (AP/ Sebastian Scheiner)