iEngage: Jewish state – Semantics versus the real thing

Is the current Palestinian position their final word on the matter?

PA President Abbas with US President Obama, March 17 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
PA President Abbas with US President Obama, March 17 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The question of Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is widely seen as a grave – some say unnecessary – obstacle on the way to peace. The positions of the sides on this issue seem irreconcilable, and neither seems likely to budge.
For many Israelis, including those who oppose the present government and question its motives in giving this issue such a high profile at this point, the Palestinian refusal to acknowledge the self-evident basis of the twostate solution – the two peoples’ right to national independence in two nation-states – is disquieting.
However, this issue is not a real deal-breaker. If the other, substantive points of disagreement are settled – a big if, admittedly – and the parties decide to close a deal, a mutually acceptable formula can be found.
One possible formula comes from the 2000 Clinton parameters: a two-state solution providing for “the State of Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people and the State of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.”
A similar formula appears in the so-called Geneva Accord signed in 2003 by a group of Israeli peace activists and a Palestinian delegation, which included people close to Palestinian Authority leadership: “Affirming that this agreement marks 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.”
Some such formula can be adopted in a peace agreement. It will be reciprocal, and it won’t sound like an Israeli dictat. It won’t be open to the objection that by recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, the Palestinians would have to renounce their historical narrative and subscribe to the Israeli one; it is obvious that by accepting such a wording, Israel will by no means be adopting the Palestinian narrative. The term “Jewish state” itself will probably not be there, but the substance of the Israeli demand will have been met, on a reciprocal basis.
“Jewish state,” of course, is precisely the expression used by the UN in its 1947 Partition Plan, which provided for a “Jewish state” and an “Arab state” in Mandatory Palestine (both of them required to ensure civic equality to their respective minorities, and full religious freedom for all). Palestinian spokespeople are shocked – shocked! – by this expression’s (possible) religious connotations; they obviously concern themselves with Israeli secularism more than with the Palestinian one, since the PA Basic Law and the draft constitution of the future Palestinian state proclaim Islam as its official religion, and Islamic Shari’a as its main source of legislation.
It is also claimed that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state has sinister implications as regards the civil rights of Israel’s Arab minority; the Geneva formula can be used to meet this objection. We have repeatedly heard that the term Jewish state is simply beyond the pale for any self-respecting Palestinian leader, but it has emerged that Yasser Arafat, at the beginning of the peace process, publicly used this expression in referring to Israel, and to the Palestinian acceptance of the twostate solution, on at least one occasion – as did the Palestinian National Council in the Palestinian Declaration of Independence in 1988. There is no reason why the “Jewish state,” as such, should not appear in the peace treaty – but a suitable substitute, of the kind indicated above, can be found.
The real question is not whether the Palestinians are willing to accept some semantic formula having to do with the Jewish state, but whether they are ready to accept the Jewish state itself. This question is raised in all its gravity by the Palestinian demand for a “right of return” to Israel for the Palestinian refugees of 1948 and their descendants. On this issue, Israel is asked to accept a principle that is a recipe for subverting the two-state solution in practice, rather than as a matter of semantics – with the assurance that it will be able to negotiate the details of this principle’s implementation.
“The right of return is a personal decision,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) said in a January 2014 speech. “Neither the PA, nor the state, nor the PLO, nor Abu Mazen nor any Palestinian or Arab leader has the right to deprive someone of his right to return… The choice is yours. You want to return? You will return. You don’t? You’re free to remain; there is compensation and other details.... The right of return is a personal right. Even a father cannot forgo his children’s right.”
The Palestinians are willing to negotiate a quota of those who will settle in Israel, but not as a final number – any quota will apply to a limited period of time, after which another quota will have to be negotiated, under the guiding principle that even a Palestinian state cannot give away the “personal” right of return of some 5 million people in question.
We are assured that not all the 5 million, with their descendants in the future, will choose to come to Israel. But to do away with Israel, you don’t need 5 million. Moreover, it is difficult for many people who are properly critical of Israel’s many flaws to acknowledge candidly, even to themselves, just how hugely attractive this flawed state is in the eyes of its neighbors.
This, rather than semantics, is the real issue. Israel can live without any semantic recognition of the Jewish state, but not with this demand. Is the Palestinians’ current position their final word? The only way to put this to the test is by submitting a peace plan that would offer the Palestinians a viable state on the basis of the 1967 lines, with a right of return to the Palestinian state, but not to Israel. Because the present Israeli government will not produce such a plan, the United States should.
Prof. Alexander Yakobson is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a member of the iEngage Project team. Learn more about iEngage at