Gwynne Dyer: Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed new law short-sighted and nasty

“With this law, Israel buys an exit ticket from the family of nations,” wrote Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea last week in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. “The proposed loyalty law”¦is really racist. It obliges non-Jews to declare that they would be loyal to the Jewish state but exempts Jews from this obligation.” But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed new law is not racist, just shortsighted and nasty.

It is really about foreign policy: Netanyahu has also just demanded that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state”. Back in 1977, prime minister Menachem Begin said exactly the opposite: “We do not [demand that] our right to exist in the land of our fathers be recognized.

“It is a different recognition which is required between us and our neighbours,” Begin continued. “Recognition of sovereignty and of the mutual need for a life of peace and understanding.” In other words, take the concrete steps that Israel needs for a peaceful and secure future, and don’t demand that everybody else subscribes to your own philosophical self-description.

Begin observed that same principle in the peace treaty he signed with Egypt in 1979, and Yitzhak Rabin used the same language in the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan. In both treaties, the parties recognize each other’s sovereignty, integrity, and political independence, but there is not a word about Israel’s Jewishness. That’s an internal issue for Israelis (who are, in any case, divided about the definition of who is really a Jew).

Defining a country in ethnic and/or religious terms sounds racist to people who live in multicultural societies like the United States, India, or South Africa, but it is actually quite common. Few people object to the “blood and soil” definitions of nationality that prevail in Germany and Japan, or to states that proclaim themselves to be Islamic republics—on one condition: that they do not treat their ethnic or religious minorities as second-class citizens.

Israel’s constitution declared it to be a “Jewish state” way back in 1948, but in theory its laws apply equally to all its citizens, including the 20-percent Arab minority. (In practice, Israeli citizens of Arab descent have a hard time, but Israeli governments use the shield of sovereignty and say that that is a purely domestic issue.)

Netanyahu’s predecessors avoided any mention of Israel’s “right to exist” or its Jewish character when they made peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan because real sovereign states do not negotiate these matters with other governments. A different approach was needed for the Palestinians in the occupied territories, because they didn’t have a state yet.

When Israel finally began talking to the Palestine Liberation Organization in the early ’90s, Rabin demanded that the PLO publicly recognize Israel’s right to exist. (It complied in 1993.) However, Rabin never asked the Palestinians to acknowledge the “Jewishness” of the Israeli state because that would be a deal breaker.

You can’t ask Palestinians whose parents or grandparents were driven from their homes during the 1948 war—and who were not allowed to go home again after the fighting ended because that would undermine the “Jewishness” of the new state—to accept that definition as legitimate. All you can ask, if you really want peace with them, is that they accept the reality of the Israeli state and recognize its borders.

So when Netanyahu raised the ante last week by demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel specifically as a Jewish state (and not just a sovereign state), Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas replied: “Name yourself the Hebrew Socialist Republic—it is none of my business.”

Israel can call itself whatever it wants and define itself however it likes, but it cannot demand that other states accept those definitions. So why would Netanyahu make such a demand if he wants the peace talks to succeed?

He doesn’t. He is unwilling to face the huge political crisis that would erupt if he agreed to withdraw all or even many of the half-million Jewish settlers who have colonized large parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (the land that the Palestinians still controlled after 1948). Since that would necessarily be part of any peace deal, he doesn’t actually want one. But he can’t say that, because it would infuriate Washington.

The United States is Israel’s vital ally, and President Barack Obama really does want a peace deal, so Netanyahu must wreck it without making it look like Israel’s fault. Step one, late last month, was to refuse to extend the partial moratorium on new construction in the Jewish settlements that he agreed to late last year.

The Palestinians had already said publicly that they would end the talks if he did that, and most people abroad don’t blame them for that. How can they be expected to negotiate while the Israelis were still expanding the Jewish settlements on their territory? But something else was needed to shift the blame for the collapse of the talks decisively onto the shoulders of the Palestinians.

That something was Netanyahu’s declaration that he will renew the settlement freeze only if the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as a Jewish democratic state. He knew they couldn’t accept that offer, which is why he made it.

The proposed law requiring new citizens to swear allegiance to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” is just window-dressing to divert the attention of foreigners, especially Americans, from his real strategy. It will badly hurt Israel’s image overseas, but it is not racist. It is just ugly and self-serving.




Oct 12, 2010 at 3:13pm

Fuck Israel, and thats not anti semetic just anti zionist


Oct 12, 2010 at 3:22pm

I used to wonder how far Israel could push the US before they would publically balk because that so rarely happens. Now with the Israeli administration at its far right and the US at its far left, we can safely say the answer is “really, really, really far”.

And the Harper administration somewhere beyond that point. Perhaps one day Mr. Harper can offer a reconcilliation of his government's view of what Canada stands for and its position vis-a-vis Israel. My guess is the term "fairness" will be used sparingly.

able seaman

Oct 12, 2010 at 4:52pm

"Defining a country in ethnic and/or religious terms sounds racist to people who live in multicultural societies like the United States, India, or South Africa, but it is actually quite common. FEW people object to the “blood and soil” definitions of nationality that prevail in Germany and Japan, or to states that proclaim themselves to be ISLAMIC Republics. On one condition: that they do not treat their ethnic or religious minorities as second-class citizens."

The word is DHIMMI in those 57 muhammedan states.
And it means 'protected'; in the same way that the MAFIA
'protected' its racket victims from 'extortion by other bad people'. You buy that?
Consider the 70% mohammedan state of Malaysia, where the constitution makes mohammedanism a condition of citizenship. And that means: bound by all the Dark Ages rules and misogyny of Sharia. The 30% minorities can go to hell.

But one 'jewish' state (vs 57) and 15 million jews worldwide
(vs 15 HUNDRED million) is one too many for Gwynne Dyer, the GS, the UN, and all the other Israel/Jew bashers.

It is so eloquently declaimed by RC here, on behalf of GS's readers, and Elmo, Elmore, Derelict O'Keefe, the Corrigans...

Indeed, Israel is the ultimate whipping boy for the UN, and any state, or any professional protest group which wants to deflect attention from its own shortcomings.
In that hostile atmosphere, it's an 'easy write' for the likes of GD, DO'K, MEM et al (you know who you are), and obviously what the GS likes to print.

Funny thing is: Not all GS readers agree with the loony ramblings of the GS's writers.

The Truth Commission

Oct 12, 2010 at 8:05pm

If Netanyahoo and Israel wanted to give anti-Semites, white supremacists and Zion-haters all the ammunition they need for the next 25 years, mission accomplished. It really seems like the prime victims of the Holocaust have failed to be moved by it's central lessons.

slightly offmark

Oct 13, 2010 at 1:02am

I disagree with some of this analysis. There are other possible explanations.
(1) This is a concession to Lieberman, Netanyahu's populist-right partner. He promised loyalty oaths and delivering will go down very well among his voters. It could be the result of some sort of coalition deal including labour. Perhaps it's even a tactic for getting past the political problems of moving settlers, though that doesn't seem likely.

(2) Lieberman and possibly Netanyahu want to pick a fight with the Arab-Israelis right now. Many Jewish Israelis are itching for one. If it becomes prime time news, it'll be to the right's favour. They are more comfortable in a national-existential rhetoric mood. Arab Israelis are probably willing to oblige too, they're also in the mood for a fight.

*small correction: Gaza & the West bank were controlled by Egypt & Jordan after 48, not Palestinians.

Jinho Choi

Oct 13, 2010 at 3:43am

Natanyahu's legacy is the demise of Occupied Palestine.

"At an end your rule is... and not short enough it was."


Oct 13, 2010 at 11:29am

This is all much ado about nothing. The key to settling the issues between "Palestine" and "Israel", however defined, is to recognize facts on the ground, as they exist today. The problem is that they keep changing. The longer either party procrastinates on points of principle, they will keep changing, and the so called "conflict" will never be solved. In fact, there is no conflict now. There is peace now. There is no war. The status quo could remain as it is now, and both sides could continue merrily on their ways. It is the "Palestinians" who will be frustrated, albeit while their national identity and economic progress flourish, while "occupied". They are NOT occupied. There are no soldiers occupying their towns and cities. There is not one Israeli soldier in Gaza. The Palestinians were under Jordanian rule for almost 20 years, and never a peep was heard on the so-called West Bank (Judea and Samaria). It is not their land. But, they can continue to prosper on that land - there is plenty to go around. And other Palestinians (Arab Israelis) can prosper where they are. And if all this silly nonsense about "loyalty" can be put to rest - maybe one day, meaningless terror and suicide killings can stop. Walls can be torn down. A demilitarized "Palestinian" sovereign government can be formed in a 2 state solution (of sorts). And there can be open borders between all peoples living in what used to be the Mandate of Palestine. Hopeless. Where there is a will there is a way. And yes, the Palestinian capital should be in East Jerusalem. Why not?


Oct 13, 2010 at 3:59pm

Constant conflict in that part of the world gives me migraines. Why didn't they just give Jews some land in, say, rural Saskatchewan. Wouldn't there be less conflict? And if they were handed someone else property to share, shouldn't they play nicer? They just seem quite arrogant and uncompromising yet for some reason always backed by the Americans...and Harper.


Oct 13, 2010 at 7:55pm

The only reasonable parties regarding the peace process right now are Fatah and foreign. Of course the West should stop treating Israel with kid gloves. Of course that would be in our interest and would have no net negative moral consequences unless we, as we are now doing, implicitly treat the Israelis as more valuable and important than the Arabs. Our support for Israel is to blame for huge amounts of Islamic extremism and hatred towards ourselves, and it is easing humanitarian pressure on Israel sufficiently to cause it to neglect its moral duties more than it otherwise would. Israel can be a great country, but never until it purges from itself this moral stain.

Jim Edwards

Oct 14, 2010 at 6:03am

Ahh one must be Jewish to be loyal. Interesting the continued de-evolution of Israel.

Another purpose of this law is to deny the right of return of the Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed from this area in 1947-8.

@ able seaman
Jews are free to live in any First world country of the world, they didn't need their own country, and certainly not one stolen from another people.