Now it is official – again. The Arab League capped its two-day summit in Kuwait with the following statement: “We express our total rejection of the call to consider Israel as a Jewish state.” This was essentially a repeat of the second of the “three noes” issued at the 1967 Arab League summit at Khartoum.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas now has all the backing he needs to continue to refuse the Israeli demand to recognize the State of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Abbas has consistently opposed such recognition, presenting it as a completely new, never-before mentioned, Israeli condition for peace.
The fact is, however, that defining Israel as a “Jewish state,” if for no other reason than to differentiate it from an Arab or a Palestinian state and to ensure that at least one country in the world is set aside for the Jewish people, dates back to Israel’s very inception. Palestinian rejection of this term happens to be just as old. The 1947 United Nations partition plan, which the Arab nations and the Palestinians rejected, and which the majority of the nations of the world as well as the Jewish leadership in Palestine affirmed, called for the creation of “Arab and Jewish states.”
Thirty years before partition, the Balfour Declaration in 1917 set out Britain’s commitment to the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The mandate for that purpose, created in 1922 by the League of Nations, divided the original territory of Palestine to include a national home for the Jewish people, under British rule, and created Transjordan under the rule of the Hashemite family.
Back in 2009, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, attempted to revise history by producing a copy of a letter signed by US president Harry S. Truman on May 14, 1948. In its original form, it recognizes the provisional government of the new Jewish state. But the typed words “Jewish state” in the second paragraph were crossed out and replaced with the handwritten “State of Israel.”
Erekat failed to mention, however, that Truman adviser Clark M. Clifford was the one who made the correction, not to deny its Jewish character, but rather to call the country by its official name.
In recent years, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state has consistently been a demand of Israeli diplomatic endeavors on the Right and on the Left. The 2003 Geneva Accord, pushed by central figures on the Israeli Left, affirmed “the recognition of the right of the Jewish people to statehood and the recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to statehood, without prejudice to the equal rights of the parties’ respective citizens.”
One of the 14 Israeli reservations attached to the 2003 US Road Map was in “the final settlement, declared references must be made to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”
From the Palestine papers, a massive trove of leaked documents published by Al Jazeera (also known as “Palileaks”) which record a decade of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it emerged that then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni (and current Israeli chief negotiator) raised the issue of Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” in 2007.
It is, therefore, disingenuous of Abbas and other Palestinian leaders to claim that the Israeli demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” is new.
In any event, the issue of Palestinian recognition has become an obstacle. Indeed, dissent on this single issue might result in the demise of the entire peace process.
Throughout its short history, consecutive Israeli governments have understood the importance of receiving Palestinian recognition as an integral part of resolving the conflict between two national movements with distinct aspirations for self-determination, that are competing for the same slice of land.
However, with a little good will on both sides, there might be a way forward. Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Survey and Policy Research and a leading expert on Palestinian opinions, says a majority of Palestinians would be willing to support the concept of Israel as a “Jewish state” on condition that its “Jewishness” is defined narrowly as a state that is guaranteed a Jewish majority, a definition many Israelis would be willing to sign off on as well.
Palestinians would give their support as long as they do not perceive the Israeli demand for recognition as an attempt to annul the Palestinian narrative emphasizing the Palestinian people’s own unique ties to the land.
The question remains whether the Arab League and the PA leadership would be willing to declare their recognition of Israel as a state with the right to maintain a Jewish majority.
It they are, perhaps the present impasse in negotiations can be overcome. If they are not, it suggests that their nefarious intention is to perpetuate the struggle against a Jewish state within any borders.