Israel's 'Jewish state' demand: Why Netanyahu and Abbas can't agree

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas meets with President Obama today. Israel's insistence that Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state is likely to be a point of contention.

Susan Walsh/AP
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, listen during remarks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Sept. 1, 2010.

Israel insists that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a prerequisite for peace negotiations. Palestinian leaders say that is impossible. 

What is Israel’s demand?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to recognize Israel as “the nation state for the Jewish people.”

While in Washington this month, Mr. Netanyahu elaborated:

Just as Israel is prepared to recognize a Palestinian state, the Palestinians must be prepared to recognize a Jewish state. President Abbas, recognize the Jewish state and in doing so you will be telling your people the Palestinians that while we might have a territorial dispute, the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own is beyond dispute. You would be telling Palestinians to abandon the dream of flooding Israel with refugees … [and] making clear that you are truly prepared to end the conflict. 

What is the definition of Israel as a “Jewish state”?

Israel does not have a constitution to spell it out, but the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs gives the following definition:

The term "Jewish state" refers primarily to nationality. Since their emergence in antiquity, the Jewish people have constituted a nation, a people, and a civilization, anchored in basic aspects of their identity, such as Judaism and the Hebrew language.  Israel is to the Jewish people what France is to the French people, Ireland is to the Irish and Japan is to the Japanese.  

Even Israel has not officially defined itself as a Jewish state. Lawmakers have proposed bills over the past three years to define Israel’s nature as a Jewish state, including how that applies to the 20 percent Arab minority. However, wide disagreement on the issue prevented any of the bills from becoming law. 

What is the position of Abbas and fellow Arab leaders?

Abbas has flatly refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, citing among other reasons that Palestinians who today live inside Israel’s borders – also referred to as Israeli Arabs – “were on the land 1,500 years before Israel was established."

Israelis have criticized Abbas for “denying history” and called him "delusional," citing their presence as a people and a political entity in the land of Israel more than 3,000 years ago. 

By recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, Palestinians would be reassuring Israel that a future Palestinian state would not try to take back that territory – essentially giving up their national rights to that land.

While the international community has effectively recognized Israel as a Jewish state through instruments such as the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, some worry that a similar Palestinian recognition would create a new reality that could negate the rights of Israeli Arabs as well as Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced out in the 1948 war of independence.

What rights and opportunities can Israeli Arabs expect in a “Jewish state”?

Netanyahu has said that Israeli Arabs – those Palestinians who stayed put in the 1948 war – will have full civil rights in Israel.

The 1948 Declaration of Independence states that Israel will “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” and “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

But these rights have yet to be fully realized, and many Arabs still feel like second-class citizens. It took nearly 60 years after Israel’s independence for the first Arab to attain a permanent seat on the supreme court and a position as a government minister. 

A 2010 poll found that only 51 percent of Israelis support equal rights for Israeli Arabs, in part due to concern that sympathy for Palestinian statehood aspirations may compromise their loyalty to Israel. A 2012 poll by the same organization found that 78 percent of Israeli Arabs feared grave violations of their rights, and 68 percent worried that Israel might transfer them, presumably to a future Palestinian state.

Have Palestinians ever recognized Israel as a Jewish state? 

No. Neither have Jordan nor Egypt, which have peace accords with Israel. 

However, a video clip has recently resurfaced in which Mr. Abbas’s predecessor, Yasser Arafat, says that the “PNC [Palestinian National Council] has accepted two states: Palestinian state, and Jewish state – between brackets, Israel.” 

The video is undated, but Mr. Arafat’s words match reports of a December 1988 conference in Sweden. At the time, Israeli leaders – among them now-President Shimon Peres – dismissed Arafat’s comments as “deception because the PNC had recently adopted resolutions that ran contrary to the recognition of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.

The PNC referred to Israel as “a fascist, racist, colonialist state built on the usurpation of the Palestinian land and the annihilation of the Palestinian people,” and included a call “to provide all the means and capabilities needed to escalate our people’s intifada … to guarantee its continuation and intensification.” 

Some have also pointed out a 2004 interview Arafat gave to the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, just months before his death, in which he said that Israel “definitely” must retain its character as a Jewish state. 

What is the US position?

The demand for Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state was reportedly first raised at Annapolis in 2007, where both the Palestinians and Americans dismissed it.

But since Secretary of State John Kerry began his shuttle diplomacy in April 2012, the US has encouraged Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

However, Kerry backed off last week in remarks to Congress, where he said, “I think it's a mistake for some people to be, you know, raising it again and again as the critical decider of their attitude.”

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