Israel is a Jewish state, or the nation-state of the Jewish people, because it was established according to the UN’s two-state resolution — Jewish and Arab states — as self-determination is rooted in the law of nations, and because it is the self-determination of the majority of Israel’s citizens. Israel does not need Palestinian recognition of its Jewish character, and has never made such a demand of Egypt and Jordan. So why has Israel been insistent on recognition of its Jewish character from the Palestinians?
US Secretary of State John Kerry stated recently that Yasser Arafat had already recognised a Jewish state. He is right. It is important to understand that recognition. In the mid-1970’s, Henry Kissinger formulated the conditions for dialogue between the PLO and the US administration. These included an explicit and unconditional rejection of terror and recognition of Israel. The issue became relevant only in the late-1980s. The PLO’s status was damaged after its expulsion to Tunisia and the outbreak of the First Intifada. It attempted to return to centrestage through dialogue with the US. Swedish foreign minister Stan Anderson was enlisted to mediate.
In November 1988, the Palestinian National Council convened in Algiers — remembered primarily for its declarations of independence. The same council, for the first time, recognised UN Resolutions 181, 242 and 338. The developments were positive, but the decisions did not satisfy the US. Anderson didn’t give up. He invited five leading Jews, led by attorney Rita Hauser from the US, to Stockholm to meet Arafat. Arafat denounced terrorism and declared his acceptance of the UN resolutions. Apparently, this was the first time the words “Jewish State” came out of Arafat’s mouth. But the US demanded a more explicit declaration, refusing to grant Arafat a visa to speak before the UN. On December 13, a special session was held in Geneva so that Arafat could speak. Once again, the US was not satisfied by his declarations. George Shultz, then secretary of state, was not prepared to deviate from the explicit wording the US demanded. After two days of consultations, Arafat convened a press conference denouncing terrorism and recognising UN Resolutions 242 and 338. He once again declared that the solution was “two states for two peoples”, and a “Jewish state” in Israel. Arafat gave his statements in English. In reality, he read exactly what Shultz had given him. This time, he met US demands. On the same day, December 15, Shultz announced that the US president had decided to open a dialogue with the PLO.
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The dialogue was short and futile. At the first outbreak of terror, the PLO refused to denounce it. Iraq invaded Kuwait. Arafat supported Saddam Hussein. The dialogue came to an abrupt end. The Madrid Conference convened, and only the Oslo Accords brought the PLO back to centrestage. But the Fatah Conference in 2009, at which Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) stood at its head, unanimously decided to completely refute the idea of a “Jewish State”. It’s worthwhile to note the wording of the announcement: “Complete resistance, with no way back, to the recognition of Israel as a ‘Jewish State’, to protect the rights of refugees and the rights of minorities on the other side of the Green Line”. Arafat himself reneged on his recognition of a Jewish state.
A number of questions remain. Why was the US’s stubborn insistence on preconditions for talks legitimate, but Israel’s demands today — not a precondition — are somehow less legitimate? Second, if Abu Mazen, the PLO and Fatah retreated from Arafat’s consent, there is a chance that every Palestinian agreement is in reality a deception. And third, if it’s not a deception, and Palestinians already recognised a Jewish state, as Kerry claims, then what’s the problem in working this agreement into the outline?
The discussion has also had several foolish claims. For example, what Abe Foxman, the president of the Anti-Defamation League in the US, would say if the US declared itself a “Christian state”. Or, Efraim Halevi, former director of the Mossad, asked how Israel would react if the Palestinians demanded recognition as a “Muslim state”. It’s unfortunate that serious individuals made such futile claims. First, the US belongs to a small group of countries that are not nation-states. Most countries are nation-states. Yugoslavia broke up into seven separate entities; Czechoslovakia into two; Pakistan broke away from India. Other European states maintain national identities, even religious identities. In England, the religion of the state is Anglican, and if the next king marries a Jew, their children won’t be able to inherit the crown. Article 4 of Denmark’s constitution establishes the state religion as Evangelical-Lutheran, which is granted state support and assistance, and its king can only be of that religion. The list can go on. Halevi, who also served as Israel’s ambassador to the EU, is supposed to be aware of all the drafts of the Palestinian constitution that establish “Islam as the religion of the state”. There is no need to wait for a state with a constitution. That is what Article 4 of the Basic Law of the Palestinian Authority states.
The demand for the recognition of a Jewish state is aimed at achieving two things: ending the fantasy of the “right of return” and bringing an end to the conflict. Israel doesn’t need Palestinian permission to be a nation-state for the Jewish people. But because the Palestinians have said that opposition to the Jewish state is a demand for the return of refugees, Netanyahu’s present demand has added significance.
It’s important to remember three other things. One, at the end of 2000, Bill Clinton presented the parameters for a peace plan that included the words: “Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people and the state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people”. Two, the Geneva Accords includes in its introduction an agreement of the right of the Jewish people to a state. And three, before Netanyahu, there were Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert who insisted on this demand.
This is not to say that Israel has kept all its promises within the diplomatic framework with the Palestinians. Take for example the “Road Map”, in which Israel promised to freeze all building in the settlements and to dismantle outposts built after 2001. That didn’t happen.
As long as we’re talking about preparing a principle draft, we need to place the demand for the recognition of a Jewish state within its historical context. It wasn’t Netanyahu and it was not the Israeli right. It was the US administration that pressured Arafat to agree to this demand, and these were dovish members who were adamant about it.
As long as Palestinians demand the “right of return”, its significance being the end of the State of Israel, the insistence on the recognition of a Jewish state is basically an insistence on two states for two peoples. Anyone who justifies the Palestinian refusal is not bringing peace any closer, but pushing the chances of a “two states for two peoples” solution further away. There are other issues on which we need to oppose Netanyahu’s policies. On this, however, he deserves total support. Not to torpedo peace, but the opposite — to pave the way to peace.
The writer, an Israeli journalist, is with the ‘Maariv’ newspaper.