The demand that as part and parcel of the emerging peace process Israel be recognized by the Palestinian leadership as a Jewish state, was voiced recently by PM Ehud Olmert as well as others in both government and opposition. The timing of Olmert's embrace of the concept appeared to have been motivated mainly by the political need to placate the right wing of his own coalition. One hopes that Olmert himself understands that, certainly at this point in the process, the demand is a non-starter and even a deal-breaker with Palestinians.
Nonetheless, the concept of Israel as a Jewish state is extremely important to understanding the evolution of mainstream Israeli views regarding peace with the Palestinian national movement as well as coexistence with the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
For most Israelis, Israel has always been a Jewish state, or, in a more secular formulation, the state of the Jewish people. After all, from an international legal standpoint this is the most legitimate definition of Israel. The Balfour declaration of 1917, later ratified by the League of Nations, declares that "Palestine will be reconstituted as the National Home of the Jewish People". UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947 creates an Arab state and a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine. The definition of Israel as a "Jewish state" was incorporated into Israel's declaration of independence of 1948 precisely in order to conform to international legality.
For the vast majority of Jews, the only rationale for Zionism is the existence of a Jewish state. Nor do most Israeli Jews see a conflict between "Jewish" and "democratic" or a problem in ultimately rationalizing the status of the Arab citizens of Israel as a national minority in a Jewish state, even though these are very thorny issues today.
The demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as a component of an end-of-conflict formula was on the periphery of the agenda of the Camp David negotiations in 2000. Israel never asked Egypt and Jordan to recognize it as a Jewish state when it negotiated peace treaties with them. Rather, the demand has emerged in recent years as a central Israeli position because, since Camp David, the Israeli mainstream has concluded from Palestinian demands and behavior that the ideal Palestinian vision of a two-state solution comprises an Arab state alongside a state called Israel that is understood by Palestinians as a future bi-national, Jewish-Arab state. Israel as Palestinians wish to see it would have a fast-growing indigenous Arab population and would confront pressures to absorb Palestinian refugees--based on the Palestinian understanding that Israeli acceptance of some responsibility for the events of 1948 constitutes de facto recognition that Israel was "born in sin" by expelling the indigenous Palestinians.
Today, given this Israeli perception of the ultimate Palestinian understanding of a two-state solution, Israel cannot permit itself in final status negotiations to accept even the symbolic return of a few thousand refugees--unless the Palestinians renounce the right of return and accept Israel as a Jewish state. In other words, the Israeli mainstream has concluded that the Palestinian demand for Israel to recognize the right of return, even if only "in theory" and to give Palestinians "psychological satisfaction", is contradictory to the two-state solution as Israelis understand it and as the international community intended.
The Palestinian negotiating position that has generated Israel's demand for recognition as a Jewish state is reflected not only in the right of return issue. At its core is apparently the Palestinian and broader Arab perception that Jews are either not a people or, if they are, they are not indigenous to the land now known as Israel.
Take Jerusalem. It was only at Camp David and thereafter that leading Palestinian spokesmen, from Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas on down, informed their Israeli counterparts that "there never was a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount". According to authoritative Palestinians, it was only at Camp David that the Palestinian side realized for the first time how important the Temple Mount actually is to Jews!
Never mind that prior to the conflict, Arab historiography readily acknowledged that the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif mosques were deliberately built on the ruins of the Temple in order that Islam benefit from the perception of continuity with Judaism. Today, the Palestinians are unable to accept a solution that acknowledges the historic Hebrew roots of the Mount and provides accordingly for Jewish access. And mainstream Israel is unable to accept anything less, lest it officially feed the Palestinian narrative that the Jews of Israel are merely a band of colonialists who lack roots in a land that they took by force.
The Palestinian position on this issue is also reflected in mainstream Israeli Arab position papers published during the past year that, in effect, demand that Israel become a bi-national state. This means that the future status of Israel's Palestinian citizens is now directly linked to the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the Jewish state issue.
Admittedly, it was pointless and needlessly provocative for Olmert to raise this issue now, just as FM Tzipi Livni need not have asserted so bluntly that Palestinian citizens of Israel could find their national identity in the emergence of a Palestinian state. But Palestinians must understand that, first, these Israeli assertions are a direct reaction to the positions they themselves take regarding the ultimate nature of Israel, and second, the conflict cannot be definitively resolved until and unless Palestinian positions on issues like refugees and Jerusalem reflect an acknowledgement that the state of Israel is built upon Jewish history and tradition in the historic homeland of the Jewish people.
Note that the Israeli mainstream, which supports a two-state solution, has no difficulty offering a parallel acknowledgement to Palestinians regarding their history, tradition and homeland.- Published 17/12/2007 © bitterlemons.org
The Israeli demand to be recognized as a "Jewish state" was not only one of the main reasons for the failure of the Annapolis conference, it was one of the most controversial issues of the negotiations. This demand is rejected by Palestinians and all Arab governments. Hence, the support for the Israeli position on this controversial issue by President George W. Bush in his opening speech at Annapolis marked a snub to the Arabs and a failure of their diplomacy.
It is useful to recall that during the "good old years" of negotiations and agreements between Israel and the PLO this was never an issue. Even during the negotiations on "mutual recognition", Israel never demanded to be recognized as anything other than Israel. Nor was the Jewish nature of the state an issue in later peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. It is thus possible to conclude that this change is a result of the radicalization that has gripped Israel over the last seven years since, and because of, the collapse of the peace process after Camp David.
But it is also possible that introducing this impossible demand was an Israeli tactic to avoid the real issues of the conflict. This is consistent with the analysis that the Israeli leadership is interested in a process of negotiations, but cannot afford actual negotiations on final status issues like Jerusalem, refugees and settlements because this is too controversial domestically.
The Arabs in general, and the Palestinians in particular, have many good reasons to reject the concept of Israel as a "Jewish state". It is racist, discriminates against Israel's large non-Jewish minority and negates the legal right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland from which they were forced to flee 60 years ago in order to make way for Jews who claimed their ancestors had lived in Palestine two or three thousand years ago.
At best, the Zionist claim that Jews around the world constitute one people, rather than constituting a religious community of different peoples, is controversial even among Jews. In addition, the concept of a "Jewish state" contradicts the principles of secularism. Secularists, including Jews, find it difficult to accept basing nationalism on religion. The modern concept of statehood is not compatible with a religious state, at least among seculars. In the same way, there has to be strong resistance to the idea of a state for the Muslim people or a state for the Christian people, especially when such states include non-Muslim or non-Christian minorities. It is interesting to note that the only American president who has accepted the concept of a "Jewish state" is the least secular president in the history of the United States.
Israel, even without counting refugees, is the homeland for a significant minority of non-Jews, Arab Christians and Muslims who constitute 20 percent of the population. Put aside for a moment that these are the indigenous people of the country; their very presence means that recognizing Israel as a "Jewish state" is the embodiment of a racist attitude. According to Israeli human rights organizations, such racism is on the rise in Israel.
There is a strong suspicion among analysts that one of the implicit motives for this Israeli position is simply to prevent Arab countries from raising the issue of the right of return of Palestinian refugees. It is a common enough Israeli negotiating tactic: add a new and difficult demand and then bargain that new demand with whatever Israel wants from the Palestinian side. "You want us to drop this demand, do not insist on the right of return."
But the Palestinian position is supported by international law and UN General Assembly Resolution 194 that explicitly give Palestinian refugees the right of return and compensation. What is the legal justification for this Israeli demand?
The least reasonable answer to this question was provided by the amateur Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, when she referred to the language of UNGA Resolution 181, which calls for the creation of an "Arab" and a "Jewish" state in Palestine. Is she suggesting adding that resolution to the terms of reference for the negotiations? In that case, the Palestinian state will comprise far more than the measly 22 percent currently being negotiated over. Or is she just being selective? Can we be selective? Resolution 181 calls the Palestinian state "Arab" rather than Palestinian. Is Livni suggesting that we start to call for an aliya of all Arabs to Palestine?- Published 17/12/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
A Jewish state now?
by Akiva Eldar
At the close of the Annapolis conference, PM Ehud Olmert made a statement that few Israeli leftists would dare to mouth. In an interview with Haaretz he declared that without an agreement with the Palestinians for a two-state solution, the future of the state of Israel would be in doubt. He threatened that if we don't make haste, Israel would become an apartheid state. An experienced politician and crafty lawyer like Olmert undoubtedly understands that an agreement is dependent on the good will of both sides. In other words, according to Olmert the fate of Zionism is dependent on the desire and the capacity of the Palestinian side to reach a compromise with Israel regarding the heavy issues that are up for negotiation: borders, Jerusalem, refugees, water and security.
In order to ensure the realization of an agreement that preserves Zionism, Israel must have an interest in quickly neutralizing the many minefields embedded in each and every one of these topics. So why is it laying yet another landmine under the negotiating table in the form of a demand that the Palestinians recognize it as a "Jewish state"? Had Olmert taken the trouble to hold a serious discussion of this issue in advance, the experts would have reminded him that 19 years ago the most senior institution of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Palestinian National Council, recognized UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947, that declared the establishment of two states, one Jewish and one Arab. In an interview in Haaretz on June 18, 2004, Yasser Arafat stated that he understands perfectly that Israel must continue to be a Jewish state, and declared that the PLO had recognized this "openly and officially".
True, words spoken in reply to a journalist's query have an entirely different significance than a declaration delivered in response to an official demand from the other side in a negotiation. The demand that the Palestinians officially recognize a Jewish state in the context of a diplomatic agreement with Israel is legitimate. The logic that informs this demand is a readiness on the part of Israel to recognize Palestine as the state of the Palestinians. Yet nothing could be more asymmetric than the current relationship between a sovereign, strong and occupier state of Israel on the one hand, and a weak, occupied and non-sovereign Palestine on the other. The peace process is currently jeopardized; any attempt to compel the Palestinians to put the cart before the horse could bring about collapse.
Sources close to Olmert explain that he played the card of recognition of a Jewish state because of internal coalition constraints. Didn't he take into account that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) labors under similar constraints? Olmert should have known that Abbas would not give him in 2007 what Arafat refused to give Ehud Barak seven years and thousands of dead Palestinians ago.
Olmert misses no opportunity to speak of Abu Mazen's political weakness and the need to strengthen his status vis-a-vis Hamas and militant elements within Fateh. He should have known that for Abbas to freely give up a trump card in the form of a Palestinian declaration recognizing a Jewish state would in fact strengthen his rivals. What would Abu Mazen reply to their request to know what the Jewish state had given him in return for a declaration that should be part of the consequences of negotiations rather than a condition for holding them? What incentive did Olmert give Abbas for opening a confrontation with Israeli Arabs who are struggling to change the definition of Israel from the state of the Jews to a state of all its citizens? Apropos the new Har Homa construction, has Israel commenced dismantling outposts, removing checkpoints and freezing construction in the settlements? Nor have we mentioned concessions on core issues that Olmert is careful to leave deep in his pockets.
Even without the Jewish state issue, more and more Palestinians are demanding to abandon the problematic two-state solution in favor of the old one-state solution--the very model Olmert is so apprehensive about. The prime minister's behavior in this affair is reminiscent of his demand that Syria commit in advance to cut its ties with Iran and expel Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal from Damascus, all in return for Israel agreeing to speak with it, but without ceasing Jewish settlement activities on the Golan Heights.
Assuming Olmert really is interested in solving the conflict and not in inventing new problems, his decision to turn recognition of Israel as a Jewish state into a point of controversy appears to show that he has not drawn the necessary lessons from his mistakes in the Second Lebanon War. Once again he has abruptly plunged the Jewish state and himself into a dire predicament that he has no idea how to get out of.- Published 17/12/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Akiva Eldar is senior columnist for Haaretz and co-author of Lords of the Land, the war over the Israeli settlements, 1967-2007 (Nation Books).
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
The demographic argument is inherently racist
an interview with Hanan Ashrawi
bitterlemons: Israel's demand to be recognized as a "Jewish state" at Annapolis caused an uproar among Palestinians. This doesn't seem like a new demand, so why the uproar?
Ashrawi: It is new in a sense. It is new as a prerequisite for negotiations. The demand has always been the recognition of Israel. Then Israel added the recognition of Israel's "right to exist", and then the recognition of it's right to exist as a "Jewish state". But when the PLO recognized Israel in 1993 there was an assumption that that was it, in the context of a two-state solution and international law and UN General Assembly Resolution 181 and Security Council Resolution 242.
This issue of the Jewishness of the state came up recently mainly because of the so-called demographic issue--which to me is an inherently racist issue--which became the central motivation for the two-state solution among the Israeli right, including Ariel Sharon. The fear of the demographic balance, projections for the birthrate and so on, led people to this position, and now Israel wants to ensure that there is always a Jewish majority.
bitterlemons: Why is this position unacceptable to the Palestinians?
Ashrawi: Once you start raising this issue it means that you want to eliminate the Palestinian refugees' right of return because they happen not to be Jewish. Israel sees the return of Palestinian refugees as a demographic way of destroying the state of Israel. Hence it has become a main prerequisite for qualification for the "good housekeeping seal": if you are a Palestinian who adheres to the right of return you are not qualified for negotiations or as an interlocutor because you want to destroy Israeli demographically.
It is also unacceptable to the Palestinian citizens of Israel. These are the people saying Israel should be a state for all its citizens. The irony is that this is seen as something entirely unacceptable by Israel. But every state should be a state for all its citizens. It cannot be a state for a select number of citizens depending on ethnicity or religious affiliation. So in a sense, Israel also wants the Palestinians to negate the right of Palestinian citizens of Israel and ensure that they remain second or third class citizens.
Finally, there is a question of principle. People recognize states. They do not recognize the right of any state to exist. The moment you recognize a state you recognize its right to exist. But you don't recognize the nature of the regime or form of governance. I don't only recognize the US as long as it is maintains a democratic, presidential system, France as long as it is a secular republic or Iran as long as it is an Islamic state. It is ironic that at a time when we as Palestinians are struggling to have a state that's pluralistic, democratic, open, inclusive and tolerant and are fighting internally against absolutist and exclusionary ideologies, we are asked by Israel to accept their form of exclusionary ideology.
bitterlemons: Israel claims that upholding the right of return would be the end of a two-state solution because two Palestinian states would essentially be created. Is this a fair position?
Ashrawi: A right is a right and it cannot be negotiated. You do not enter negotiations having relinquished a right and violated international law. You have to uphold international law, recognize rights and then negotiate their implementation.
It is Israel that is destroying the two-state solution with its settlements and by refusing to accept a viable democratic state on the 1967 borders. There are now voices increasingly calling for a one-state solution and democracy as the answer, with one voice and one vote.
To me, the demographic argument is by definition racist. I think Palestinians have the right to independence, statehood and self-determination as a legal and political imperative. It is not an issue that has to become a threat or that we formulate in response to somebody else's position.
bitterlemons: Israel says the idea of two states for two peoples is embodied by UNGA Resolution 181. Is this your interpretation?
Ashrawi: The language used was a "Jewish state" and an "Arab state". If they want to accept 181, then let us take all of it. Then we go back to the whole partition plan. We have agreed to give them 78 percent of historic Palestine. If they want to use 181, then they can have 54 percent of Palestine and then they can say they have a "Jewish state".
bitterlemons: But is that your understanding of 181? Does it call for this kind of ethnic division?
Ashrawi: No it doesn't. But it describes the state as Jewish and that's why Israel wants to use it. 181 was a response to the Jewish Question. It was decided to give part of Palestine to Jews for as long as it would not endanger the rights of the indigenous Palestinian population. Now Jews have a state. But does this mean that this state can be exclusionary and discriminatory? Does it mean that this is the language that should be used in twenty-first century? If they want to use 181, let's take it in its totality.
bitterlemons: In view of the apparent US endorsement of the Israeli demand, what can Palestinians do?
Ashrawi: We don't have to accept the Israeli demand. If anyone came up and said the US should be legitimate only as a Christian state there would be an outcry. But the fact that the US took their cue from the Israelis and adopted Israeli language is not new. It doesn't mean we have to accept it.
bitterlemons: But how significant is it?
Ashrawi: It depends on how you pursue it. It's significant in the sense that the US adopted the Israeli position, but this is not new. But will it be translated into concrete steps when it comes to refugees, or the suggestion by some Israeli racists of a land swap based on demography? Would the US endorse such racist solutions? Would they accept the negation of the rights of Palestinians? That's the issue.
bitterlemons: Do the Americans understand that this is the issue?
Ashrawi: If they don't, they have no business mediating. The implications of these words are enormous. The Palestinians see this as a way of forcing them to accept the Israeli narrative and therefore negate the Palestinian narrative and Palestinian legitimacy. If you want a peace process you have to incorporate the legitimacy of the Palestinian narrative.- Published 17/12/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Hanan Ashrawi is a Palestinian legislator and a member of the Third Way party.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.