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    October 25, 2010 Edition 20                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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  The "Jewish state" condition
  . A popular but problematic position        by Yossi Alpher
The Palestinian response, too, is inconsistent.
. A consensus of opposition        by Ghassan Khatib
The underlying assumption is that this Israeli request aims at putting sticks in the wheels of the peace process.
  . The recognition deposit        by Gershon Baskin
I don't blame the Palestinians for the difficulty in understanding what a Jewish state means.
. Israel should determine its character democratically        by Omar Rahman
Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is inappropriate.

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A popular but problematic position
by Yossi Alpher

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's "Jewish state" or "nation state of the Jewish people" demand is popular with the Israeli public. The right wing likes it because it is patriotic and seemingly "anti-Arab". The left and center cannot easily oppose it because it dovetails with their emphasis on ending the occupation in order to maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in view of the demographic threat. Netanyahu can even take credit for getting US President Barack Obama to endorse the Jewish state demand.

Whether Netanyahu is consciously aware of it or not, the origins of the explicit negotiating demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state can be traced to the failed peace talks of the past decade: at Camp David in 2000, Taba in 2001 and the Olmert-Abbas talks of 2008. It was only in the course of these attempts to discuss the "existential" or "core" final status issues of refugees/right of return and the Holy Basin in Jerusalem that Israelis became acutely aware of the ultimate import of Palestinian negotiating positions.

In these negotiations, Israelis confronted the Palestinian demand that Israel recognize the right of return--regardless of the number of refugees actually repatriated--and the assertion that Israel has no rights on the Temple Mount because "there never was a [Jewish] temple there." These positions appear to reflect an insistence that an Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement express, at least in the eyes of future generations of Palestinians, a fundamental Arab rejection of Jews as an indigenous Middle East people enjoying the right to self-determination in their historic homeland. Israel, the PLO seemingly insists, must acknowledge that it was "born in sin".

This negotiating experience, more than any other single factor, explains the growing demand expressed in various forms by the Netanyahu government that the PLO, and for that matter, the Arab citizens of Israel and a growing body of international detractors--all of whom refuse to recognize Jewish national rights in Israel--recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people.

Sadly, Netanyahu seems to be using the Jewish state demand more as a way of browbeating the Palestinians than as a legitimate means of explaining to Palestinians and their backers the problematic nature of their own positions. Moreover, from a negotiating standpoint the Israeli prime minister is confused: first he presents the Jewish state demand as a precondition for agreeing to talks; then it becomes an essential element in any final-status pact; most recently, Netanyahu offered merely to extend the settlement freeze in exchange for PLO recognition of a Jewish state.

This explains the widespread suspicion that the prime minister grasped onto the Jewish state demand as a convenient deal-breaker. Rather than being presented as a legitimate counterweight to intractable Palestinian positions on the Temple Mount and the right of return, it seemingly lets him off the hook of a two-state solution because it is unacceptable to the Palestinians.

Nor is Israeli terminology consistent. We hear talk, interchangeably, of a Jewish state, the nation-state of the Jewish people, the state of the Jewish people, etc. Each of these terms has a different meaning and different ramifications for, say, the status of non-Jewish minorities in Israel. Israel's declaration of independence, the closest thing we have to a constitution, defines the country as a "Jewish state", but only because United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947 used that term. Yet this confusion underlines Israel's own failure both to define its Jewish nature--historic, national, religious--and to persuade the rest of the world, and certainly the Muslim world, that the view of Judaism as nothing but a non-sovereign religion is historically erroneous and insulting and politically outmoded.

Yet the Palestinian response, too, is inconsistent. On the one hand, we are told that Palestinian acceptance of 181 and a two-state solution already embodies recognition of a Jewish state. Yasser Arafat even mentioned Israel once as a Jewish state. On the other hand, Palestinian leaders assert quite reasonably that they are under no obligation to define the ethnic-national nature of the "State of Israel" (Israel's official name): Israel can call itself whatever it wants. Yet the Palestinian argument that Egypt and Jordan never had to accept Israel as a Jewish state in order to make peace ignores the provocative nature of unique Palestinian final status demands on core issues like refugees and the Temple Mount that Israelis cannot possibly accept.

Two weeks ago, PLO Executive Committee Secretary Yasser Abed Rabbo briefly agreed to recognize Israel as a Jewish state in return for an Israeli commitment to a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. While this statement was immediately denied, it might be significant that a senior Palestinian official not only expressed a willingness to accept Netanyahu's demand regarding Israel as a Jewish state, but sought to integrate it into the negotiating framework by demanding a quid pro quo that many Israelis and most of the international community can support: the 1967 lines.-Published 25/10/2010 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

A consensus of opposition
by Ghassan Khatib

Although Palestinians explain in various ways their rejection of the recent demand by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, there appears to be a consensus of opposition. When Netanyahu recently repeated this request as a condition for implementing an internationally-required settlement freeze, there were two Palestinian approaches.

The first, and the most widespread, was to reject this condition for fundamental reasons. Number one, adopting such a position will undermine the Palestinian demand that the right of return for Palestinian refugees be implemented according to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194.

Second, such a position would also harm Palestinians in Israel, which comprise one-fifth of the population and have already been subjugated to all kinds of racist attitudes and positions by both society and the state itself.

Third, this demand reflects a racist attitude that cannot be accepted by Palestinians on a moral basis alone.

Another set of responses to this Israeli condition believe it should be refused because it is irrelevant, particularly since the Palestine Liberation Organization , which was party to all signed agreements with Israel, already recognized Israel in 1993 in the exact way Israel is recognized in the United Nations and by other states in the world. Such a request wasn’t presented by Israel at that time.

Now this is all part of the history of the peace process, where Israel responded to the official letter of recognition by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat with a letter from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin recognizing the PLO. That was the first time Israel recognized the Palestinians as a people and the PLO as their representative.

Still other Palestinians responded to the Israel request by challenging Israel to specify the borders upon which it needs to be recognized. That challenge is tough for Israel to answer because it has never specified official borders--neither before nor after its illegal occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank including East Jerusalem.

In sum, the underlying assumption among Palestinians is that this Israeli request, in addition to undermining and preempting certain legitimate Palestinian objectives, aims at putting additional sticks in the wheels of the peace process that the United States and the rest of the international community are trying to initiate. The reason behind this is that the politics of the current right wing Israeli government are completely incompatible with the world consensus and stipulations of the resolutions of the Security Council. And thus, the Israeli government is doing its best to avoid engagement in negotiations by adding daily prerequisites or obstacles.

States are not usually recognized on the basis of their religion or ethnicity, but rather on the basis of their national character. The United Nations and international law should be the references for this process.

As such, it is about time that the international community--led by the United States--confront Israel with two choices: either Israel agrees to engage seriously in negotiating a final settlement with Palestinians on the basis of defined agreements, the roadmap, and relevant Security Council resolutions. Or the international community takes a direct role in helping Palestinians materialize their independent state both by continuing to help the Palestinian government in its efforts to build state institutions and prepare for independence, and at the appropriate time adopting a resolution in the Security Council recognizing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

While Palestinians prefer and give priority to the first option, it has to be made clear to Israel that peace based on two states cannot be kept hostage forever to the whims of the occupier. Israel itself was not established through agreement between two parties but through a combination of the state institutions that Jewish groups managed to establish under the British Mandate, and United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 that partitioned historic Palestine into two states. –Published 25/10/2010 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

The recognition deposit

by Gershon Baskin

There are those who believe that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has raised his demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people only to serve as an obstacle to real negotiations. I tend to believe Netanyahu that his demand is substantive and strategic in his understanding of what real peace means for Israel.

The international campaign to delegitimize Israel and its right to exist that is supported by the Palestinian national movement adds weight to Netanyahu’s demand. As an Israeli Jewish nationalist, I don’t share Netanyahu’s belief that Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish nation-state is necessary. I accept the statement by Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat that “we recognized Israel, you define who you are!” I don’t need the Palestinians to define the Jewish character of the state of Israel nor for that matter the character of any other state to tell me who I am. The problem is that once the Jewish state issue has been raised, there is almost no way to get around it that will support peace other than Palestinian agreement.

So far, Palestinian responses have been mostly damaging to the cause of peace. Statements by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and other Palestinian leaders that they will never recognize Israel as the Jewish nation-state have only reinforced the conviction of the already large majority of Israelis who don’t believe that peace with the Palestinians is possible. In a recent interview with Oded Granot on Israel Broadcasting's Channel One, Abu Mazen said, “We recognized Israel in 1993, we don’t care if they define themselves as Chinese, we recognize Israel.” For the same cost he could have said, “We recognized Israel in 1993, we don’t care if they define themselves as the Jewish nation-state.” But he didn’t.

While I don’t support Abu Mazen’s position, I do understand him. Israel never demanded this kind of recognition from anyone else--not from Egypt or Jordan and not even from the United States. If the Palestinians recognize Israel, then as the Palestinians understand it they will be agreeing to remove the issue of refugee rights even before the negotiations begin; surely Israel cannot expect them to do so.

And, in the Palestinian understanding, recognizing Israel as the Jewish nation-state calls into question the rights of the more than one million Palestinian citizens of Israel. The Israeli demand does not say: recognize Israel as the Jewish nation-state and the state of all its citizens. How could Netanyahu expect the leaders of the Palestinian national movement to singlehandedly disenfranchise more than a million of their brothers and sisters?

From many hours of discussions I have had with Palestinians on this subject, I know that they misunderstand the basic demand and what lies beneath it. Palestinians (and perhaps most other non-Jews) believe that the demand to recognize Israel as a “Jewish” state refers to its religious character. This confusion emanates from the complexity of Jewish identity itself and from the way that many Israelis, politicians and journalists refer to the Israeli demand--recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, and not as the Jewish nation-state or the nation-state of the Jewish people, as Netanyahu emphasizes. It is true that the United Nations partition resolution of 1947 speaks about a Jewish state and an Arab state, but the reference in those days to a “Jewish state” was precisely to its nation-state characteristic and not to religion. I do not want a “Jewish state” in the religious meaning. I am not interested in a Jewish theocracy. In fact, I am very secular and even an atheist. But I am very Jewish. I don’t blame the Palestinians for the difficulty in understanding what a Jewish state means.

Palestinians also believe that the Israeli demand is the precursor to adopting a policy that would transfer the Palestinian citizens out of Israel. There is no doubt that with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman serving as a senior coalition partner, and following a recent UN speech in which he presented his party’s platform to the world in the name of the Israeli government yet was not fired by Netanyahu upon his return from New York, it is difficult to dispel Palestinian fears of transfer.

But I have to say here that I believe Palestinians misinterpret the Israeli demand on this issue as well. Palestinians most often say: how can we accept Israel as a purely Jewish state? Yet Netanyahu and other Israelis who raise this issue have never spoken about a “purely Jewish state”. There are no pure ethnic states anywhere. National minorities are an inescapable reality of every nation-state, Israel as well.

I think that the best way out of this difficult quagmire is to adopt the idea of a “deposit”. Back in the early 1990s, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin entrusted US Secretary of State Warren Christopher with a policy deposit regarding the Golan Heights that Christopher could use with the Syrians in order to break the deadlock over pre-negotiation demands. Basically, Rabin said that if the Syrians satisfy all of Israel’s security needs and requirements on the issues of normalization of relations, Israel would be willing to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights.

Abu Mazen could also state, “The Palestinians will be prepared to recognize Israel as the Jewish nation-state when the Palestinian state has been established, the Israeli occupation has ended, there are guarantees in place for the rights of the Palestinian national minority in Israel and there is an agreed solution to the refugee problem.” By putting the deposit up front, both sides would be able to remove the issue from the agenda and the negotiations could move forward without Israelis claiming that there is no Palestinian partner for real peace.- Published 25/10/2010 © bitterlemons.org

Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information and is now in the process of founding the Center for Israeli Progress.

Israel should determine its character democratically

by Omar Rahman

Observing the current debate over Israel’s demand to be recognized as a “Jewish state” by the Palestinians as a condition of their natural right to self-determination, one is subjected to several slogans and catchphrases that would seem quite reasonable to the impressionable observer (as they are probably intended).

“Two states for two peoples, one Jewish and one Palestinian!” And, “There are several Arab states but only one Jewish state!”

As such, this seemingly innocuous demand with its easily-digestible axioms, deliberately obscures the nuances of such recognition. Furthermore, it makes Palestinian refusal on the issue appear intransigent and unaccommodating, which may also be intended.

In fact, Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is inappropriate. The subject of Israel’s national character is for domestic consideration and the Palestinian community living outside of Israel does not have the right or mandate to qualify the national character of the state, nor speak for its citizens. Nor should Palestinian sovereignty be withheld over an Israeli domestic issue.

Israel is a sovereign country that considers itself a democracy. Therefore, it should determine its own character democratically, with the full implications and responsibility of upholding that democracy.

Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would also validate the system of racial inequality that already exists in Israel. Although not much might change in the way Israel treats its non-Jewish citizens, the Palestinians living outside of Israel should not be obliged to legitimize a system of ethnic superiority in which certain rights and privileges are afforded only to people based on their “Jewishness.”

One example is the “right of return,” which Jews from all over the world enjoy, while Israel’s own non-Jewish citizens face obstacles gaining citizenship for their non-Israeli spouses.

Furthermore, although the outcome of the refugee issue will most likely be decided within the framework of negotiations, Palestinians would be forced into prejudicing the rights of the refugees by acknowledging that the repatriation of refugees poses a threat to the “Jewish character” of Israel.

Going forward, Israel could legitimately pursue all kinds of undemocratic actions in order to ensure the stability of its Jewish majority and character under the sanction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. If Israel’s non-Jewish citizens ever pose a serious demographic threat--which by almost all estimates they eventually will--Israel will be within its rights as the recognized Jewish state to take all manner of actions to prevent that reality from taking place.

If such practices are allowed, how could this state in all seriousness be called democratic? The very premise that a state could act against the rights of its minority in favor of preserving the identity and character of the majority is fascist.

Two states for two peoples is a false promise because Jewishness as an ethnic and religious identity is exclusive, while Palestinian as an ethnic and national identity is not. Jews could become Palestinians but Palestinians could never become Jews. A Palestinian or Jew born in France could say he is French. Just as a Palestinian born in Israel could say he is Israeli. What he can’t say is he is Jewish. –Published 25/10/10 © bitterlemons.org

Omar Rahman is managing editor of JMCC.org based in Jerusalem/Ramallah.

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Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons.org and yossi@bitterlemons.org, respectively.

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.