So many bags are going to be packed and unpacked all over again in the present round of Israeli Palestinian Peace talks. According to the special American envoy George Mitchell, the rivaling leaders have agreed to meet every two weeks over the coming months, with U.S. representatives attending at least some of those meetings. One may look enviously on the lavish gatherings, the next one due this Monday at the enchanted Egyptian-Bedouin Sharm El Sheikh resort. At the same time respect is due for the perfect candor sizzling out of the off-record briefings: no, nobody expects real progress to come out of the discussions, thanks for asking.
President Barack Obama made a special festive plea to Israel and the Palestinian Authority "to move beyond their differences". However the luggage of the Israeli Prime Minister contains some two thousand year old axioms that would guarantee no such "move" will not occur in any foreseeable future.
"Moving beyond the differences" between a mini-superpower and a semi-functioning civil administration totally controlled by it is already a great challenge. Any symmetry between the two parties will be limited to the sizes of the delegations' respective presidential suites. The good food and elegant settings might help to forget that Benjamin Netanyahu is the elected leader of the occupying might, fully backed by his relevant constituency, while Mahmoud Abbas's presidency over an exasperated population with no citizenship or even valid travel documents is much contested.
Still, just for the case that the Palestinians should accept too many Israeli security demands and expect some gesture in return, a real effort was made by the Israeli delegation to secure the breakdown of the negotiations with null results. Benjamin Netanyahu inserted a trump card with an old-new mantra to take the center stage: "we expect you to be prepared to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people", Netanyahu reportedly told President Abbas in Washington, making headlines and rallying supporters to the customary indignant Israeli complain: what about our right for self-determination?
What most supporters will not see, and the majority of supposedly impartial observers fail to notice, is that this demand has nothing to do with self-determination; In fact it represents the opposite of this very idea. The basic right of every person to choose and declare his or her own national identity is denied to Israeli citizen and residents alike.
There is no such thing as "Israeli Nationality". Israeli citizens are categorized according to "nationalities" that in fact represent their religion affiliations or ethnic origins. Rare challenges to this anomaly from within Israel are crushed (if raised by Arabs) or ignored (if the challengers are Jews). The state accords a privileged status to the "Jewish Nationality" which may be certified only by the authorities of the Orthodox rabbinate.
As Netanyahu, a seemingly secular, smart and sophisticated modern man, and the overwhelming majority of Israeli-Jewish citizens know only too well, the concept of the "nation state for the Jewish People" entails green light for human rights violations sanctioned by the strict, undemocratic and openly xenophobic decries of a very ancient, unreformed and outdated religion.
The Orthodox Jewish establishment that exclusively decides "who is a Jew" is far removed from the majority of the Jewish religious institutions in the US (in fact many American Jews are not even as eligible to call themselves Jewish according to the orthodoxy). But it had mastered the reverence and the full cooperation of the Israeli state and its supporters, enabling a perfect instrument for the practice of blatant discrimination against non-Jews who happen to live in the land, mainly the indigenous population.
In the National State for the Jewish People residential rights as well as property claims have their limits for the non-Jewish population. Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel are expected to accept a second-class citizenship. In the occupied territories, the discrimination becomes even more painfully obvious, while its origins are seldom noticed. The flourishing Israeli settlements, resided by Jewish nationals only, are enclaves of state-financed welfare and prosperity. Their dwellers may roam the space between the river Jordan and the sea unhindered by the military checkpoints. Their elevated status is a direct derivation of their religious affiliation. In fact, any complete foreigner landing in these regions from abroad is entitled to the lavish subsidies that make life in the occupied areas so attractive to many Israeli Jews. Provided, of course, that he or she can display the mandatory religious affiliation credentials.
It is hardly surprising that feeble calls for secularization of Israel - a mere separation of politics and religion ("Church and State") are greeted with panic and libeled as "calls for the annihilation" of the Jewish State. Non-religious Israelis often resent the extent at which the Jewish religion interferes with their personal affairs, down to the consumption of food, leisure patterns, transport and matrimony. They dislike most aspects of the orthodox religious education system and the generous funneling of tax money to sponsor non-working religious populations. Israeli women know that law of the land does not accord them the same rights as men, and on some Jerusalem buses their place is in the back as not to interfere with the view of pious Jewish men. Still, the concept of the "National Jewish State" remains a sacred taboo.
However there is no reason in the world why a Palestinian leader should endorse this taboo and not regard it for what it really is: a basic fault of the Israeli political entity. Perhaps he should remind his Israeli interlocutors that they would certainly recoil were he to present them with a parallel demand to recognize a future Palestine as a "National Moslem State". Advocates of a Two States Solution should think twice before accepting that one of the desired future political entities would be allowed to be fully identified with any version of an ancient religion.
If anything, Middle East pundits would be well advised to ask Israel to move towards secularity and real democracy. This will be a real step to enable "moving beyond the differences" for the parties in our long suffering region. En route they will be doing a favor to many Israeli Jews.