When a major Arab state would finally sign a peace treaty with Israel, it was long assumed, the Arab-Israeli conflict would end. The Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979, however, buried that expectation; it had the perverse effect of making other states and also the Egyptian populace more anti-Zionist.
The 1980s gave birth to a hope that, instead, Palestinian recognition of Israel would close the conflict. The total failure of the 1993 Declaration of Principles (also known as the Oslo Accords) then buried that expectation.
What now? Starting about 2007, a new focus emerged: winning acceptance of Israel as a sovereign Jewish state. Israel’s former prime minister Ehud Olmert set the terms
: “I do not intend to compromise in any way over the issue of the Jewish state. This will be a condition for our recognition of a Palestinian state.”
Olmert was Israel’s worst prime minister, but he got this one right. Arab-Israeli diplomacy has dealt with a myriad of subsidiary issues while tiptoeing around the conflict’s central issue: “Should there be a Jewish state?” Disagreement over the answer to that question — rather than over Israel’s boundaries, its exercise of self defense, its control of the Temple Mount, its water consumption, its housing construction in West Bank towns, diplomatic relations with Egypt, or the existence of a Palestinian state — is the key issue.
Palestinian leaders responded with howls of outrage, declaring that they “absolutely refused” to accept Israel as a Jewish state. They even pretended to be shocked at the notion of a state defined by religion, although their own “Constitution of the State of Palestine,” third draft, states that “Arabic and Islam are the official Palestinian language and religion.” Olmert’s efforts went nowhere.
On taking over the prime ministry in early 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated Olmert’s point in his diplomacy. Regrettably, the Obama administration endorsed the Palestinian position, again sidelining the Israeli demand. (Instead, it focuses on housing for Jews in Jerusalem. Talk about the heart of the issue.)
If Palestinian politicians reject Israel’s Jewish nature, what about the Palestinian and the broader Arab and Muslim publics? Polls and other evidence suggest a long-term average of 20 percent acceptance of Israel, whether in the Mandatory period or now, whether Muslims in Canada or Palestinians in Lebanon.
To learn more about current Arab opinion, the Middle East Forum commissioned Pechter Middle East Polls to ask a simple question of a thousand adults in each of four countries: “Islam defines [your state]; under the right circumstances, would you accept a Jewish state of Israel?” (In Lebanon, the question differed slightly: “Islam defines most states in the Middle East; under the right circumstances, would you accept a Jewish state of Israel?”)