Netanyahu’s “Shibboleths” Scuttle Peace Talks

by James M. WallNetanyahu

“No partner for peace” is one of several “shibboleths” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and his cabinet are now using to scuttle any peace agreement with President Mahmoud Abbas, no matter how often U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Tel Aviv.

As readers of Judges 12:6 are well aware, pronunciation of the word “shibboleth” is used to separate friends from enemies.

In episode eight of the second season of the television series West Wing, for example, President Josiah Bartlett used “shibboleth” to determine that Chinese immigrants were truly Christian and therefore deserved admission to the U.S. To assert that Israel “has no partner for peace” is a verbal signal,  a “shibboleth”,  which quickly certifies that the speaker is “with Israel”, without reservations.

When John Kerry returned last week to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks for his tenth visit, he brought with him a proposal to discuss “four core issues” with the peace negotiators. Because he is a master diplomat (another reason to regret his failure to defeat incumbent President George W. Bush in 2004), Kerry knew Netanyahu would find ways to defer progress toward peace.

Kerry’s “four core issues” were quickly expanded by Netanyahu and members of his cabinet, to “six core issues”.  Added to the negotiation table were two tried and true Israeli “shibboleths”,  “Israel must be acknowledged as a Jewish state” and Israel must maintain military control over the Palestinian Jordan Valley.

Both are what negotiators refer to as “poison pills”, demands certain to be rejected by President Abbas.  “No partner for peace” is used to add icing on the cake, since negotiations are simply not a part of Israeli leaders’ DNA.

The Zionists who planned the Nakba, village by village, prior to the outbreak of war in 1947, were there as colonial conquerers. The intent was to move steadily from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Jordan River in the east.  Thanks in large measure to the horrors of the Holocaust, the world both tolerated and encouraged this march to the east.

There were always signs that this march would be unrelenting and not subject to negotiations. This has been obvious in subsequent Israeli governments that employed “peace talks” as diversions for expansion and additional military control. Even when Israel pretended to move in a positive manner, it was for its own security purposes, as was the case of its “withdrawal” to the Israeli-controlled borders of Gaza.

Early in President Jimmy Carter’s term in office, I traveled with President  Carter to the United Nations where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Menachen Begin.  When I was very briefly introduced to Begin, I knew he had been briefed by his American aides who assumed, correctly, that because I was with President Carter, I would behave.

“Oh yes”, he said to me, “You are with us”. I mumbled an answer that I hoped was both diplomatic and accurate. Since I was not whisked away, I must have  passed the “you are with us” test.

It was not a proud moment for me, having by that time made enough visits to the occupied areas to know this was an grossly uneven struggle between the occupier and the occupied.  But knowing President Carter, I knew he would say “there is a time to be silent and a time to speak”, I responded to Begin in polite no-speak platitudes.

The encounter, however, was revealing to me of the Israel leader’s strong “us against them” mindset.  After that,  I responded often to the prime minister and his successors, through whatever avenue of communication I was able to commandeer.

I have no idea how Israel identifies frequent visitors who are either “with us” or “against us”, but I do know that all my subsequent arrivals and departures in Tel Aviv have not been greeted with warm smiles. Maybe the Israeli border computer records have a “smiley face” that stands for “with us” and a “frowny face” for those who are “against us”.

I do know that one attempt I made to travel to Tel Aviv hit a snag when I flew from Chicago on American Airlines and changed planes in Rome to fly on El Al to Tel Aviv.

Israeli officials had their own little corner security operation in the airport basement in Rome. Because the Israelis felt I had not given them sufficient time to have all my bags (including my laptop) thoroughly examined, I was required to spend a night in the Rome airport hotel. That cost me some money and it may also have earned me two “frowny faces”.

In Jerusalem the next day,  I complained about this experience to a American Jewish Committee staffer who spoke to the group I was leading. His “with us” or “against us” answer was blunt. He told me that earlier (I knew it was at least several years earlier) a Catholic or maybe it was an Orthodox priest, had been apprehended driving into Israel with a trunk load of rifles.

But I digress. John Kerry has no trouble getting in and out of Tel Aviv. He is on a mission for peace. The Secretary, however, was greeted with anything but smiles by Israeli leaders who were supposed to be discussing steps toward a peaceful future.  They greeted him with Netanyahu’s demand that Abbas “recognize Israel as a Jewish state” and the promise of more housing startups in Israeli settlements.

Netanyahu also used the early part of January to attack President Abbas for “failing to curb” what Netanyahu claims is hate propaganda aimed at Palestinian children and young people.  These charges have long been a staple in Israel’s hasbara campaigns. The charges are hardly effective generators of hatred compared to frequent IDF night raids into Palestinian homes and the arrests of children on the streets. These heartless attacks are more than adequate generators of youthful and intense dislike of Israel by Palestinian children.

On his tenth peace visit, Kerry used his time well. He traveled between Tel Aviv and Ramallah, reaching for consensus for an outline for peace which he wants to have finalized by his deadline of mid-year.

When Kerry departed for home, there was speculation in the Israeli media that he might be open to pushing Abbas toward accepting the “Jewish state” shibboleth. Richard Silverstein reports that Kerry may be using Arab leaders to pressure the Palestinians into giving Israel this particular “shibboleth”..

For Kerry’s sake and for the sake of peace in the region, we can only hope these reports are a misreading of Kerry’s thinking.

Bernard AvishaiMeanwhile, Bernard Avishai, (left) Israeli author and academic, wrote a posting in a January 2 blog in the New Yorker, which offers a wise and thoughtful perspective on the “Israel as a Jewish state” issue.

Avishai teaches at Dartmouth College as a visiting professor of government, and at the Hebrew University as an adjunct professor of business. He is the author of “The Tragedy of Zionism” and “The Hebrew Republic”. His most recent book is “Promiscuous: Portnoy’s Complaint and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness.”

The core of Avishai’s blog posting covers three layers of the “Israel as a Jewish state” issue.  The excerpt below is long but access to the full posting may require a subscription. The posting should best be read in full.

Netanyahu’s demand has at least three layers to it. The first is symbolic, without practical significance—understandable, but superfluous. The second is partly symbolic, but is meant to have future practical significance; it is contentious but resolvable. The third, however, is legal: it has great practical significance, and is, for any Palestinian or, for that matter, Israeli democrat, deplorable. We are no longer debating resolutions at fin-de-siècle Zionist congresses. Making laws requires settled definitions, and what’s being settled in Israel is increasingly dangerous. Netanyahu’s demand is a symptom of the disease that presents itself as the cure.

On the first, symbolic point: Israel is obviously the state of the Jewish people, in the sense that vanguard Jewish groups in Eastern Europe dreamed of 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 the name of a communal desire. The state is not called Ishmael, after all.

At the most visceral level, when we Israelis insist that Israel be recognized as Jewish, we mean that we want this narrative recognized, the same way in which Palestinians implicitly want acknowledgement of their particular formative sufferings at the hands of Zionism when they say “Palestinians” rather than “southern Syrians.” To say, as Yair Lapid, Israel’s Minister of Finance, does, that he doesn’t care what Palestinians think is rude. When Palestinian spokespeople speak to Israeli reporters in Hebrew, they are recognizing Israel in the most poignant possible way. To ask for more is tactless.

That leads to the second, partly symbolic, partly practical aspect. Why does Netanyahu insist that this recognition is not enough? Because, he claims, in any negotiation with the Palestinians, it must be understood in advance that there can be no “right of return” for Palestinians to Israel—and, therefore, accepting this formulation, “the state of the Jewish people” signifies a joint decision to preclude a flood of Palestinian refugees into Israel’s borders and onto its electoral rolls.

But Netanyahu’s claim is false, and puts a stumbling block where a pathway needs to be cleared. You can certainly find a formulation for the refugees that does not ruin Israel’s Jewish/Hebrew character—one that preserves the Palestinian “right of return” as a seminal piece of the Palestinians’ narrative, the name of their desire. It might say, for example, that refugees have a right of return to their homes, but that the forms of compensation, the number of returnees, etc., must be agreeable to Israel, and that, in any case, the majority will exercise that right by returning to a future Palestinian state.

The contradiction between “the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state” and “the right of return of Palestinians” may sound intractable. In fact, it was pretty much resolved at Taba, in January, 2001. Why resort to distracting principles when a little useful ambiguity will do?

Unfortunately, however, Netanyahu cannot, or will not, simply leave things there. For the phrase “Jewish state” also has a third meaning, with legal ramifications dear to the heart of Israeli rightists (including old Labor Zionists in love with the saga of the settler state); laws that derive from the historical application (some would say misapplication) of neo-Zionist ideas and Ben Gurion’s rash compromises with rabbinical forces over two generations ago; laws that have left Israel a seriously compromised democracy.

As the New Year begins, where do we look for signs of hope?  Start with John Kerry, who may yet find a way to break through Benjamin Netanyahu’s stubborn exterior. And look to authors like Bernard Avishai, who found his way into the pages of The New Yorker to enlighten information-starved American readers.  Added tip: Avishai also writes on occasion for Harpers and the Nation.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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5 Responses to Netanyahu’s “Shibboleths” Scuttle Peace Talks

  1. AWAD PAUL SIFRI says:

    Thanks for highlighting Netanyahu’s crackdown on peace.
    In fact Netanyahu is a master manipulator. He realizes that Israel is in its strongest position, ever since it was invented and created on Palestinian lands in 1948, and after expelling 80% of the Native Arab population of Palestine – both, Christians and Muslim.

    He is also aware that, currently, the Arabs are at their weakest level since the time they were under Western colonial rule in the 20th Century. Some might argue, even weaker.

    Netanyahu figures that this is the opportune time to go-for-broke, in order to grab, control, and digest the entirety of Palestine, and to ensure that it is recognized, not only as “Israel”, but also as a “Jewish state”,

    Based on this premise, Charlatanyahu is using fake-lame-bigoted excuses and dangerous games, in order to prevent a peaceful solution of any sort, unless it guarantees Israel’s colonization of the entirety of Palestine, and as a “Jewish State”, a la “pure race”.

    The Palestinians have recognized the state of “Israel” in 1993. And in 2002, Arab countries have committed to recognize “Israel”, under a peaceful solution, based on pre-June 1967 borders.
    This is precisely what Israel and the US and the West have demanded for decades.

    However, since a couple of years, Israel has greedily inflated and exaggerated its demand to require its recognition as a “Jewish State”. It has moved the goal posts to a recently invented steep new peak. It would be similar to Germany demanding that the world not only recognize it as a “German State”, but rather as an “Aryan State” that safeguards the rights of all people who claim to be part and parcel of the “pure race”.

    Israel now wants to be recognized by Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims, as a “Jewish State”, rather than plain “Israel”, in order to illegitimately acquire a fake “legal” right to expel the remaining Palestinian Natives of Israel-’48 and the 1967-occupied territories any time the Zionists feel like it.

  2. Fred says:

    It is of course, the Palestinians who have no partner for peace, but Israeli PR and talking points have always prevailed. The peace talks are a great deception. If the Israelis ever really wanted peace, they would not have gobbled up Palestinian land and built apartheid settlements all over. Some of these settlements are huge new cities. And they keep building.

    It’s not for the Palestinian to determine what Israel calls itself. If Israel wants to say it’s the Jewish state of Israel, let them, no one is stopping them.

    It’s all about deception, and finding a way to blame Palestinians for no agreement, while Israel takes the remainder of Palestine and continues to build its apartheid state. It knows it has the American Congress in its pocket.

    AIPAC runs US policy with their ability to buy congressman and spin the media. Their is no mighty pro justice, anti apartheed Lobby to compete with it.

  3. Roy Hayes says:

    Bibi won’t get the last word this time. The Zeitgeist has undergone transition.

  4. Patricia Pynchon says:

    A firm decision not to finance the Israelis any more should settle the problem. Alas, the zionists took Palestine by pointing guns at an unarmed people, therefore zionists are criminals and should be treated as such. Until they wish to apologize and settle their crime by returning conquered land to establish a Palestinian state, they should should be treated as criminals, and not funded by the U.S.

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