U.S. foreign policy

Secretary Kerry: Re-define “Jewish state” and “Right of return”

A tactical change is needed to prevent narrative issues from undermining the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. 

March 2014

According to Secretary John Kerry, the most difficult issues to resolve in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are so-called “narrative issues” such as the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the Palestinian Right of return. The problem is not the parties’ stubbornness, as Secretary Kerry seems to think, but that the U.S. peace initiative fails to take into account why these issues are so important and come up with a more constructive way of dealing with them in negotiations.

In recent years, the notion of a “clash of narratives” has become a part of the mainstream vocabulary on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Diverging narratives are known to undermine communication and breed distrust between the parties, and have for decades been a major source of headache for international peacemakers. However, different approaches to narratives have different implications for negotiations. A minimalist understanding of the term distinguishes narrative issues such as symbolic recognition from “real issues”, such as security, borders, settlements, Jerusalem, etc. Historical approaches focus on how the narratives recount historic events in different ways, which produces diverging interpretations of guilt and reasonable compensation between the parties. Constitutive approaches define narratives more broadly as a prism through which the actors understand everything in the conflict, including material issues and historic events.

When Secretary Kerry talks about narrative issues, he clearly takes on a minimalist approach, regarding seemingly symbolic issues as a separate category to be negotiated with symbolic gestures. This is not a particularly useful path to dealing with narrative issues, because it black-boxes the cause of their intractability and offers no tactics to making them manageable.

The idea of a Jewish state is as “real” to Israelis as the Right of return is to Palestinians, and as real as Kerry’s difficulty with encompassing both in the same framework. The problem is that Israelis and Palestinians interpret these issues and their implications in fundamentally different ways, and reject the validity of the other’s view. The Israeli demand for recognition as a Jewish state has over the past years emerged as a new expression of the Zionist goal of securing a state in which Jews hold the majority. Many Israelis perceive some of the Palestinian claims, particularly the Right of return, as signs that the Jewish majority state is in danger, and regard a formal recognition as a security clause in negotiations. Most Palestinians, on the other hand, perceive the new demand of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state as a rhetorical trick to legitimize ethnic cleansing and continued repression of Israeli Arabs. Although most Palestinians today regard the Right of return primarily as a symbolic issue, the claim is anchored in an international endorsement of the Palestinian narrative of historic injustice. Many believe that giving up this claim involves accepting the Israeli narrative and hence the premise on which the conflict is resolved.

From an outsider perspective, the Israeli and Palestinian positions on these issues may seem melodramatic and unreasonable. However, the parties have good reasons for their stubbornness. First, both the Right of return and the demanded “Jewish state” formulation are interpreted on the basis of existential narratives. Understood in their own right, these narratives stipulate who has the right to the territory, based on specific interpretations of history, justice and international law. Second, these demands have some very real implications in negotiations, as they establish a premise from which the parties can make other claims. Their prospects for success on other issues such as settlements, borders, and security arrangements depend on what premise gains traction in the negotiation process. Third, it is no coincidence that narrative issues keep overshadowing the negotiation process. In the absence of a shared definition of the core of the conflict and the various conflict issues, the only fixed parameters are each party’s sources of legitimacy. The Right of return is not a Palestinian invention, but a UN regulation, and the formulation of Israel as a “Jewish state” has been adopted by the U.S. peace initiative as the ultimate goal of the peace process, which Secretary Kerry recently anchored in the UN recognition of the state of Israel. Both parties cling to issues that have gained international support at some point, in the format in which they have been endorsed. Unfortunately, the parties’ most powerful sticking points in the negotiation process happen to be incompatible.

Although narrative issues are more fundamental to the peace process than usually recognized, it is not a given that they have to remain intractable. An important question in this context is why the issues come in this particular package, as a demand for a formal recognition of a Jewish state and recognizing or giving up the Right of return. There are reasons to question whether these demands are even good ideas in the first place. When the parties trust each other as little as they do; why should Israel be content with a written statement of recognition? And why should Palestinians give up the Right of return? Why should either party accept something they do not know the implications of?

They shouldn’t. In the current format, these issues are too convoluted, and their consequences are too unclear. If the U.S. is serious about ending this conflict, bringing the parties to the table and pressuring them into making concessions is not enough. Secretary Kerry and Special Envoy Martin Indyk should show leadership by changing the format of all intractable issues. A place to start is helping the parties unpack the ideas behind the Jewish state and the Right of return. Both demands are expressions of a range of different concerns which need to be addressed in their own right. U.S. peacemakers can play a more constructive role in negotiation by helping the parties to clarify each concern. If the symbolic issues are replaced by a list of concrete concerns, it would be much easier for the parties to discuss each of them at a realistic level, and move forward.