I spent the summer of 1999 in Israel. Ehud Barak had just been elected prime minister, sparking a surge of optimism about the prospects for a two-state deal. We’re going to define our borders with the outside world, an Israeli friend told me. Then we can focus on the deeper conflict: inside Israel itself.

Fourteen years later, the optimism about the two-state solution is gone. But my friend’s statement retains a kernel of truth. And unless you understand it, you can’t understand the peace talks restarting this week.

On Wednesday, absent a last-minute crisis, Israel and Palestinian negotiators will resume haggling under the State Department’s watchful eye. Lots of issues could scuttle their efforts. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas hates negotiating while Israel continues to build settlements. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hates having to release Palestinian prisoners in order to lure Abbas to the negotiating table. On the borders of a Palestinian state, the security arrangements that would bind it, and the fate of Palestinian refugees, the two men are solar systems apart.

But even harder than these concrete questions about the allocation of land, people, and guns may be a symbolic one: Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s top aide and incoming ambassador to the United States, has called it “the core issue.” Which is revealing, because it’s not really about the conflict between Israel and a Palestinian state. It’s about the conflict within Israel itself.

On the surface, Netanyahu’s insistence that Abbas recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” makes little sense. In the Camp David Accords, Egypt didn’t recognize Israel “as a Jewish state.” It just recognized Israel. Same with Jordan when it made peace in 1994. Ditto with the Palestine Liberation Organization, the organization Abbas now leads, which recognized “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security,” in the Oslo Accords signed 20 years ago. Until recently, it wasn’t even clear if the United States recognized Israel as a “Jewish state.”

As Abbas declared in 2010, Israel is “free to call itself the Israeli Zionist Jewish Empire” if it wants. Why does Netanyahu need the Palestinians to define what Israel is?

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