Most observers expected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to target his harshest criticisms of the Palestinians during his U.S. trip on the Hamas-Fatah agreement. Surprisingly, his most important talking point turned out to be his demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state." To be sure, Netanyahu took every opportunity to denounce the Palestinian unity deal, compare Hamas to al Qaeda, and point out that some of its leaders had praised Osama bin Laden. But his most pointed, passionate, and persistent theme was that the core of the conflict, and the key to its solution, is that Palestine refuses to recognize Israel as a "Jewish state."
As he told a joint meeting of Congress, "It is time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say... 'I will accept a Jewish state.' Those six words will change history."
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor echoed Netanyahu, claiming, "The Palestinians' and the broader Arab world's refusal to accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state... is the root of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It is not about the '67 lines." Washington resonated to the voices of Israeli officials and their supporters similarly insisting that the conflict is not about territory or Palestinian independence, but about this issue instead.
The idea that Palestinians need to formally recognize the "Jewish character" of Israel is relatively new. Indeed, it does not predate the Annapolis Conference of 2007, where it was briefly floated by the Israeli delegation. Back then, Palestinians rejected it as an irrelevant diversion from final-status issues such as borders, security, Jerusalem, and refugees. The George W. Bush administration wasn't impressed either, and in his address at the conference President Bush simply referred to Israel as "a homeland for the Jewish people."
The historic requirement for the Palestinians was, in the words of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, to recognize Israel's "right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force." The Jewish state issue was never raised during Israel's negotiations with Egypt and Jordan. The Palestine Liberation Organization formally recognized Israel in the Letters of Mutual Recognition in 1993, which were the basis for the Oslo process and all subsequent negotiations, while Israel merely recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The PLO then went through a torturous series of emendations of its core documents. The Palestinians had, at that point, fully satisfied all extant diplomatic and legal requirements regarding recognition of Israel, and waited in vain for Israel to recognize an independent state of Palestine in return.