IN ADVANCE of the upcoming diplomatic conference in Annapolis, Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced the other day that he expects the Palestinian Authority to finally acknowledge Israel's existence as a Jewish state. A newly arrived visitor from Mars might wonder why this should even be an issue -- after all, Israel is a Jewish state. If the more than 55 countries that make up the Organization of the Islamic Conference are entitled to recognition as Muslim states, and if the 22 members of the Arab League are universally accepted as Arab states, why should anyone balk at acknowledging Israel as the world's lone Jewish state?
Yet Olmert's demand was rebuffed. Saeb Erekat, the senior Palestinian Authority negotiator, said on Monday that Palestinians would refuse to recognize Israel's Jewish identity on the grounds that "it is not acceptable for a country to link its national character to a specific religion." According to the Jerusalem Post, Erekat told Radio Palestine: "There is no country in the world where religious and national identities are intertwined."
In fact, there are many countries in which national identity and religion are linked. Argentinian law mandates government support for the Roman Catholic faith. Queen Elizabeth II is the supreme governor of the Church of England. In the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the constitution proclaims Buddhism the nation's "spiritual heritage." The Danish and Norwegian royal families must be members, respectively, of the Church of Denmark and the Church of Norway. "The prevailing religion in Greece," declares Section II of the Greek Constitution, "is that of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ."
In no region of the world do countries so routinely link their national character to a specific religion as in the Muslim Middle East. The flag of Saudi Arabia features the shahada -- the Islamic declaration of faith -- in white Arabic script on a green background; on the Iranian flag, the Islamic phrase "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great") appears 22 times. And then there is Erekat's own Palestinian Authority, whose Basic Law provides in Article 4 that "Islam is the official religion in Palestine" and that "the principles of Islamic sharia shall be the main source of legislation."
Clearly, then, Erekat and the Palestinian Authority do not refuse to accept Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state out of some principled opposition to linking national and religious identity. Perhaps, our visiting Martian might surmise, their objection is simply tactical: Are the Palestinians withholding formal recognition from Israel in order to extract some corresponding recognition for themselves?
But that explanation also doesn't hold water. Olmert has repeatedly endorsed the creation of a sovereign state of Palestine. "We support the establishment of a modern, democratic Palestinian state," he says. "The existence of two nations, one Jewish and one Palestinian, is the full solution to the national aspirations and problems of each of the peoples." Last week he went so far as to suggest that a plan for Palestinian peace and statehood might be achieved "even before the end of President Bush's term in office."
So why won't the leaders of the Palestinian Authority acknowledge the obvious -- that Israel is the Jewish state? The Jewish connection to Palestine is a matter not just of rich historical fact, but of international law. When the League of Nations entrusted Britain with the Mandate for Palestine in 1922, it expressly recognized "the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine" and the rightfulness of "reconstituting their national home in that country." By that point, Britain had already transferred 80 percent of historic Palestine to Arab rule -- today's Muslim kingdom of Jordan. All that remained for a Jewish state was the residual 20 percent (and even that was later subdivided). But there, at least, it was clear that the Jewish community was "in Palestine as of right and not on sufferance," as Winston Churchill underscored at the time.
Eighty-five years later, that small sliver of the Middle East is home to nearly half the world's Jews. If that isn't a Jewish state, what is?
Yet all this is beside the point. The refusal of the Palestinian Authority, and for that matter most of the Arab world, to acknowledge Israel as a legitimate Jewish state isn't a denial of reality; it is a sign of their determination to undo that reality. Like Arab leaders going back a century, they seek to live not in peace with the Jewish state, but in place of the Jewish state. Olmert can show up at Annapolis bearing Palestinian sovereignty on a silver platter, with half of Jerusalem thrown in for good measure. He will not walk away with peace. On the contrary: He will intensify the Arab determination to replace the world's one Jewish state with a 23rd Arab state.
The key to Arab-Israeli peace is not Palestinian statehood. It is to compel the Arab world to abandon its dream of liquidating Israel. As a matter of national self-respect, Olmert should repeat his demand that the Palestinians acknowledge Israel's Jewish identity -- and make it nonnegotiable. If Israel cannot insist even on so fundamental a point of honor, it has already lost more than it knows.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)