The demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as "the state of the Jewish people" has at least three layers to it: The first is symbolic, without practical significance, and understandable. The second is partly symbolic, is meant to have future practical significance, and is contentious (though resolvable). The third, however, is legal, has great practical significance, and is, for any Palestinian (or democrat, for that matter) unacceptable. It is time to stop working through symbols and start saying what we mean.
1. Israel is obviously the state of the Jewish people in the sense that vanguard Jewish groups in Eastern Europe dreamed a Hebrew revolution, which launched the Zionist colonial project, which engendered a Jewish national home in Mandate Palestine, which earned international backing to organize a state after the Holocaust--a state that became a place of refuge for Jews from Europe and Arab countries--that is, a state with a large Jewish majority whose binding tie (to bring things back to Zionism's DNA) is the spoken Hebrew language.
When Palestinians say they recognize "Israel," they are implicitly recognizing this reality; they are acknowledging, to paraphrase Irving Howe, the name of our desire. At the most visceral level, when Israelis insist Israel be recognized as Jewish, they mean they want this narrative recognized, the same way they implicitly acknowledge the peculiar formative sufferings of Palestinians at the hands of Zionism when they say "Palestinians" and mean "not Jordanians or southern Syrians." When Palestinian spokespeople speak to Israeli reporters in Hebrew, they are recognizing Israel in the most poignant possible way.
2. Why is this not enough? Because, claims Netanyahu (like Olmert and Livni before him), in any negotiation with the Palestinians it must be understood in advance that there can be no "right of return" for Palestinians to Israel--that accepting this formulation, "the state of the Jewish people," really means precluding a flood of Palestinian refugees into Israel's borders and onto its electoral roles.
But the claim is false and puts a stumbling block where a pathway needs to be cleared. You can obviously find a formulation for the refugees which does not ruin Israel's Hebrew character; one that preserves "the right of return" as a seminal piece of the Palestinians' narrative, the name of their desire. You can say the refugees have a right of return to their homes but that the forms of compensation, the number, etc., must be agreeable to Israel, and that, in any case, the vast majority will exercise that right by returning to the Palestinian state. The contradiction between "the recognition of Israel" and "the right of return" may sound impossible to resolve. In fact, it has already been resolved at Taba in January 2001. Why resort to distracting principles when a little tact will do?
3. Unfortunately, however, Netanyahu cannot, or will not, simply leave things there. For the phrase, "state of the Jewish people," also has legal ramifications dear to the heart of Israeli rightists (including old Labor Zionists in love with the saga of the settler state); ramifications that derive from the historical application (some would say misapplication) of Zionist ideas over two generations and which seriously impinge on democratic standards. It is one thing to think of Israel as a democratic republic whose citizens speak a dominant language inflected by Jewish nuances--you know, poetic allusions to classical Jewish texts and liturgy and the like. It is quite another to think of Israel as state that represents, or embodies privileges in law for, certified members of a world Jewish people:
I mean (as I've said often before) a state that allocates land almost exclusively to certified Jews, empowers the Jewish Agency to advance the material well-being of certified Jews, appoints rabbis to marry certified Jews only to one another, creates immigration laws to bestow citizenship on certified Jews, founds an educational system to produce certified Jews, assumes a sacred capital to be a kind of theme park for the world's certified Jews--indeed, a state that presumes to certify Jews in the first place. Such a state must be anathema to Palestinian leaders, who cannot but notice that a fifth (soon, a quarter) of Israeli citizens are Palestinian in origin: they can recognize Israel but cannot possibly accept this Jewish state. But then, neither can Israeli Jews with ordinary democratic instincts. I, for one, do not.
By the way, if you want a poster-child for this creepy, growing Israel within Israel, you could do worse than Natan Sharansky, who has just been "elected" president of the Jewish Agency; a man who preaches Jeffersonian democracy to the world, but whose conception of democracy in Israel is, shall we say, squishy Rousseauian; a General Will interpreted by, well, generals.
"We're in a world where Jews are losing their identity," Sharansky says, "Israel and world Jewry are like receding galaxies, floating apart at a time when contact is easier than ever...Abroad there is the problem of assimilation, but in Israel, too, young Jews are growing away from their roots...The Jewish Agency is [a] meeting place, the ideal tool for developing that connection."
The disease that presumes itself the cure.