I think it would be wonderful if the Palestinians would recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

I don’t think it would be a tragedy if they don’t, nor would it mean that peace is not possible. This is a request that should have stayed in our hearts and not on the negotiating table. It is a rather bizarre request that definitely falls outside of the lines of normal interactions and relations between states.

International relations, international law and international legitimacy (all based on the same principles) guide the interactions between states and their official representatives – their governments. Recognition of states’ sovereignty is done in a bilateral basis – states recognize each other. The expression of that recognition is the exchange of ambassadors and the establishment of embassies in each other’s countries. Their mutual declarations of recognition respect the equality of their existence through the rights and obligations granted to them in international law – primarily the right to enter into treaties and to be signatories to international conventions and institutions.

In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, Israel was established in 1948 and gained recognition from the United States within minutes of its birth. Many other countries followed soon afterwards. Israel gained full membership in the United Nations in 1949 in its second attempt. Palestine, as a sovereign state, was supposed to have been created at the same time, by UN Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947.

But the Palestinians and their Arabs neighbors fought against the resolution and Israel’s birth and so instead of a state, some of the territory which was supposed to have become Palestine was conquered by Israel, some was given to Israel (by Iraq) as part of armistice agreements, some of it was occupied by Egypt (Gaza) and some of it was illegally annexed by Jordan (the West Bank and east Jerusalem).

Nonetheless, the reason for the decision to create two states in the land between the River and the Sea did not evaporate as a result of the changed geo-political reality on the ground in 1948. Six-and-a-half decades later the same reason for the decision of 1947 remains as valid today as it was then.

Several wars later the Palestinians decided to adopt a more pragmatic political approach and finally agreed to accept the existence of Israel, leaving them only a small part of the land which they believed belonged to them in its entirety. In November 1988 they declared their independence in a state whose territory they defined as the West Bank including east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, and they called on the nations of the world, including Israel, to recognize their state.

At that time some 104 countries recognized the existence of Palestine. But the reality on the ground did not change and eventually it was clear that without a peace agreement with Israel, the state which they had declared would not possess any real sovereignty until Israel gave up its control over the territory which they sought to liberate.

So in September 1993, as a result of secret negotiations the Palestinians recognized Israel. Their exact words, written in a letter to prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, were:

“September 9, 1993
Yitzhak Rabin
Prime Minister of Israel

Mr. Prime Minister, The signing of the Declaration of Principles marks a new era in the history of the Middle East. In firm conviction thereof, I would like to confirm the following PLO commitments: The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.

The PLO accepts United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

The PLO commits itself to the Middle East peace process, and to a peaceful resolution of the conflict between the two sides and declares that all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiations.

The PLO considers that the signing of the Declaration of Principles constitutes a historic event, inaugurating a new epoch of peaceful coexistence, free from violence and all other acts which endanger peace and stability.

Accordingly, the PLO renounces the use of terrorism and other acts of violence and will assume responsibility over all PLO elements and personnel in order to assure their compliance, prevent violations and discipline violators.

In view of the promise of a new era and the signing of the Declaration of Principles and based on Palestinian acceptance of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, the PLO affirms that those articles of the Palestinian Covenant which deny Israel’s right to exist, and the provisions of the Covenant which are inconsistent with the commitments of this letter are now inoperative and no longer valid. Consequently, the PLO undertakes to submit to the Palestinian National Council for formal approval the necessary changes in regard to the Palestinian Covenant.

Sincerely,
Yasser Arafat
Chairman
The Palestine Liberation Organization”

In a normal situation guided by international law and relations between states, Israel should have then recognized the State of Palestine. But instead prime minister Rabin issued the following letter:

“September 9, 1993
Yasser Arafat
Chairman
The Palestinian Liberation Organization

Mr. Chairman, In response to your letter of September 9, 1993, I wish to confirm to you that, in light of the PLO commitments included in your letter, the Government of Israel has decided to recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and commence negotiations with the PLO within the Middle East peace process.

Yitzhak Rabin
Prime Minister of Israel”

This was not parallel nor was it reciprocal. The Palestinians recognized the legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel and its right to live in peace and security but did not yet do anything nearly parallel in return.

And now comes the very strange demand that in order to make peace the Palestinians must accept the definition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.

Quite frankly, as a Jewish Israeli I find it insulting that we are demanding that the Palestinians define our character as a state. This is a controversial issue for Jews. I, for example, refuse to call Israel a “Jewish state” and insist that it is “the nation state of the Jewish people.” Herzl’s book Der Judenstaat does not mean “The Jewish State” – it means “The State of the Jews.” That is something entirely different.

Israel is not a religious state. We don’t have a theocracy nor do I want one. Israel is a civil state with civil laws that guide the rule of law in this country, not religious laws.

Israel is also the state of more than one million Palestinian Arabs, most who are also Muslims. If anything, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and all of its citizens.

Israel is no less the state of those Palestinian Arabs who were born here for generations that it is the state of a new Jewish immigrant from Ethiopia, Russia or France, or the United State like me or Iraq like my wife’s parents.

So I would say to the Palestinians, we don’t need your recognition of our character – that is for us to decide. We do demand that in a peace treaty to continue to recognize us as a state, as we will recognize you as a state, that we end our conflict in its entirety, that we respect each other’s sovereignty, that we adhere to international law and through the agreements between us, we work to establish real peace between our peoples and not only between our governments and that we understand that the mutual good of both of us is our goal so that we can all live in security and bring safety and prosperity to our people.

The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.

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