Why Israel Insists on Palestinian Recognition of a Jewish State

Recent headlines and political statements have suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s request for recognition as a Jewish state is a new and unnecessary requirement imposed by Israel upon the Palestinians. It has been characterized as an obstacle to peace and worse, as a ploy by Netanyahu to avoid negotiating with the Palesitnians.

A January 2nd New York Times headline declared recognition of a Jewish state to be a “sticking point in peace talks.”  The same article the following day in the newspaper’s international edition put it more sharply: “New Obstacle to Peace: Recognizing a Jewish State.” And lest readers wonder who was being blamed for obstructing negotiations, the article made it clear that it was not the Palestinian refusal to recognize a Jewish state, as much as it was Israel’s insistence on being recognized as such that was the “sticking point” or “obstacle” to peace. Citing unnamed “critics,” the article explained:

Critics skeptical of Mr. Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution to the long-running conflict say that recognition of a Jewish state is a poison pill that he is raising only to scuttle the talks.

It is noteworthy that a subsequent New York Times headline on an article about Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to recognize a Jewish state did not characterize this as an “obstacle to peace” but rather as Abbas “hold[ing] his ground.” 

Yet another recent article headlined “Jewish State Declaration Is Unyielding Block to a Deal” pointedly avoided characterizing Palestinian “refusal” to acknowledge a Jewish state as a “block” to a deal. Rather, it ended with US Secretary of State John Kerry’s quote asserting that “it’s a mistake for some people to be raising [the issue of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state] again and again as the critical decider of their attitude toward the possibility of a state and peace.”

Kerry’s statement came after it became apparent that the Palestinians would not budge from their refusal to accept a Jewish state as part of a peace deal. It was also clear that the New York Times remained unwilling to blame Palestinians for thwarting peace in any way, preferring instead to pile criticism on Israel. The newspaper published two Op-Eds – “Why Israel Fears the Boycott,” by BDS Founder Omar Barghouti, Feb. 2 and “Defining the Jewish State,”  by former PA Minister Ali Jarbawi, March 7– criticizing Israel’s desire to be recognized as a Jewish state. While anti-Israel activist Barghouti condemned the entire concept of a Jewish state, Jarbawi claimed it was a new scheme by Prime Minister Netanyahu “to sabotage the peace process.” A New York Times editorial (“Israel’s Choice,” March 6) , in typical form, sided fully with the Palestinians, suggesting that it was up to Israel–not the Palestinians– to alter their positions in order to achieve a peace deal and warning that negative consequences would arise should the US framework for negotiations support Israel’s position.

Other newspapers, as well, faulted Israel’s requirement to be recognized as a Jewish state. A headline in London’s Independent declared: “Netanyahu asks the impossible.”  The article blamed the Israeli leader for “ramping up a campaign to paint the Palestinians as the rejectionists in the troubled US-brokered Middle-East peace efforts” while “keeping the talks stagnant” due to Israel’s insistence on acceptance as a Jewish state. Reuters news articles similarly blamed “Netanyahu’s demand that Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state” – not Abbas’ refusal – as the main “hurdle” or “unexpected roadblock” to a peace deal. And an LA Times Op-Ed by journalist Patrick Tyler cast the requirement for recognition as a Jewish state as “one of the most nettlesome” “preconditions” to peace talks, suggesting that “Netanyahu may have erected this demand to block any return to the negotiating table.”

With so much distortion and blame of Israel’s prime minister, it is important to sort out the truth from the misrepresentations and to understand what really underlies Israel’s emphasis on being recognized as a Jewish state.

Is Prime Minister Netanyahu the first Israeli leader to insist on recognition as a Jewish state?

Many media outlets, including some of the above-mentioned columns and news articles, have suggested that recognition of a Jewish state is a brand new demand by Israel’s current prime minister.

But this is plainly wrong. The State of Israel was founded as a Jewish state, its identity as the nation-state of the Jews was its raison d’être. As part of peace negotiations, successive Israeli administrations have demanded to be recognized as such by their Arab neighbors.

The 2003 “Road Map” peace proposal by the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the United Nations was accepted by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with 14 appended reservations, the sixth of which stated:

In connection to both the introductory statements and the final settlement, declared references must be made to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and to the waiver of any right of return for Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel.

Sharon’s successor, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, similarly viewed Arab acceptance of a Jewish state as the result of negotiations. Tzipi Livni, Olmert’s foreign minister insisted during peace negotiations in 2007 that

Our idea is to refer to two states for two peoples. Or two nation states, Palestine and Israel living side by side in peace and security with each state constituting the homeland for its people and the fulfillment of their national aspirations and self determination…Each state constituting the homeland for its people and the fulfillment of their national aspirations and self dete
rmination in their own territory. Israel the state of the Jewish people — and I would like to emphasize the meaning of “its people” is the Jewish people — with Jerusalem the united and undivided capital of Israel and of the Jewish people for 3007 years… and Palestine for the Palestinian people. We did not want to say that there is a “Palestinian people” but we’ve accepted your right to self determination. …

[We want you to recognize it.] The whole idea of the conflict is … the entire point is the establishment of the Jewish state.

Palestinians explicitly referred to this Israeli demand in their memorandums at the time, as they noted that arguments would have to be formulated against “Israeli demands for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.”

In his public address at the 2007 Annapolis Middle East Peace Conference, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert emphasized that he expected negotiations to conclude with “an agreement that will fulfill the vision expressed by President Bush: two states for two peoples, a peace-seeking Palestinian state, a viable, strong, democratic and terror-free state for the Palestinian people; and the state of Israel, Jewish and democratic, living in security and free from the threat of terrorism, the national home of the Jewish people.”

A similar false suggestion in the media is that recognition of a Jewish state is a new “precondition” to negotiations imposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu. 

In fact, the Israeli prime minister has clearly emphasized that there are no preconditions to negotiations. At a June 12, 2013 press conference with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, the Israeli prime minister explicitly said:

My goal is to see a historic compromise that ends the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians once and for all. This will entail a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state, with iron clad security arrangements for Israel — recognition, security, demilitarization. I believe that these are the elements for peace. I don’t pose them as preconditions for negotiations. I look forward to enter those negotiations without preconditions without delay.

Why does Israel insist on Palestinians’ recognition of a Jewish nation-state? Isn’t it enough for them to recognize the state of Israel?

Israel’s position is that Palestinian recognition of the Jewish right to self-determination parallels Israel’s recognition of a Palestinian right to self-determination, forming the basis of a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The refusal by Palestinian negotiators to recognize Israel as the eternal homeland of the Jewish people thus lies at the heart of the conflict. A peace agreement that is not predicated upon acceptance of a sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East is seen as evidence that Palestinians do not view two neighboring sovereign states – Jewish and Palestinian – as a long term solution to the conflict, but rather as a temporary truce that can be altered at a more opportune time.

These fears about Palestinian motives are bolstered by the statements of Palestinian officials. For example, former Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister/chief negotiator Nabil Shaath went on record on Arabic TV in 2011 to declare that Palestinians would never accept “two states for two peoples” that included a Jewish state. As he put it then:

The story of “two states for two peoples” means that there will be a Jewish people over there and a Palestinian people here. We will never accept this – not as part of the French initiative and not as part of the American initiative. (Arabic News Broadcast TV, July 13, 2011; recorded and translated by MEMRI)
The fact that official Palestinian Authority media, officials and, indeed, President Abbas himself deny Jewish history and connection to the land, and continue to portray Jews as usurpers and interlopers on Palestinian land, fuels Israeli doubts about Palestinian willingness to end the conflict with acceptance of a Jewish national right to exist and flourish in that part of the world.

For his part, PA President Abbas argues that he has already recognized the state of Israel but will never accept the Jewish character of the state or recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. His most recent rejection is endorsed by the Arab League

Among the reasons given by Abbas for his adamant refusal to accept a Jewish state are that it would change the Palestinian narrative and be an affront to Palestinians living inside Israel, who “were on the land 1,500 years before Israel was established” (in yet another denial of Jewish history in the region.) In addition, Palestinian leaders have argued that recognizing a Jewish state would necessitate relinquishing the so-called “right of return”– the option of allowing Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948, and their millions of descendents to resettle in the State of Israel. Abbas just recently reassured his people again he would never recognize a Jewish state and that the option of moving into the state of Israel would remain open. 

But refusal by the Palestinians to accept Israel as a Jewish state, coupled with their unwillingness to relinquish the so-called right of return into Israel’s borders evokes former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat’s “phased” strategy for ultimately taking over the Jewish state. This is spelled out in the Palestine National Council’s 1974 ten point program, known as the “Phased Plan” for Israel’s destruction. Its basis is to first create a Palestinian state on any territory that is handed over by Israel (Article 2) and then to use that state to “complete the liberation of all Palestinian territory.” (Article 8).

Arafat revealed how the peace agreement he had signed would enable his plan of eliminating a Jewish state at a closed door meeting with Arab diplomats in Stockholm in 1996. He is widely quoted as follows:

We of the PLO will now concentrate all our efforts on splitting Israel psychologically into two camps. Within five years we will have six to seven million Arabs living on the West Bank and in Jerusalem. All Palestinian Arabs will be welcomed back by us. If the Jews can import all kinds of Ethiopians, Russians, Uzbekians and Ukranians as Jews, then we can import all kinds of Arabs to us. We plan to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian State. We will make life unbearable for Jews by psychological warfare and population explosion; Jews will not want to live among us Arabs.

I have no use for Jews; they are and remain Jews. We now need all the help we can get from you in our battle for a united Palestine under total Arab-Moslem domination.  

Two years later– a decade after presumably having accepted a two state solution and several years after signing the peace accord with Israel, he explained what the Oslo peace accords meant to him on Egyptian Orbit TV. In that 1998 interview, Arafat invoked the Palestine National Council’s “phased plan” and compared the Oslo Accords to the ” Hudaybiyyah” treaty of the Prophet Mohammed with the Quraysh tribe, a hudna , or temporary truce, that remained in effect just until Mohammed’s men were strong enough to defeat the tribe.

The underlying Israeli fear is that Palestinians still cling to the idea of a phased plan to overwhelm the Jewish state. Even in the absence of the type of “armed struggle” envisioned by Arafat to take over Israeli territory, large immigration by Palestinian refugees and their descendents would change the nature of the state of Israel from the nation-state of the Jews to a Palestinian-majority state. The two-state solution would thus evolve into a region with two Palestinian states– one free of Israeli Jewish inhabitants (Palestinian officials have repeatedly declared that Israelis would not be allowed to reside in a Palestinian state in the West Bank or Gaza ) and one with a Jewish minority population. The limitation of Arab recognition to the existing state of Israel without full acceptance of a Jewish state underscores this concern.
Palestinian charters and convenants that are arguably still in place —the Fatah CharterHamas Charter and the Palestine National Covenant — still indicate that Israel’s existence in the region is a foreign presence and call for the territory to be “liberated” in its entirety and taken over by the Palestinians.  This, too, underscores the need for any final peace agreement to include formal and official acceptance by the Palestinians of an eternal Jewish nation-state alongside a Palestinian one.

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