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The real ‘Jewish state’ story

The demand that Palestinians recognize the country's Jewish character is, for Israel, a matter of survival

Israel is a Jewish state — or the nation-state of the Jewish people — by virtue of having been established by a United Nation resolution on two states, one Jewish and one Arab, and because self-determination is rooted in the law of nations, and finally because it’s the self-determination of the majority of Israel’s citizens. Israel does not need Palestinian recognition of its Jewish character and never made such a demand of Egypt and Jordan. So why has Israel insisted on recognition of its Jewish character by the Palestinians? Is their authorization really necessary?

US Secretary of State John Kerry maintained recently that Arafat had already recognized a Jewish state. Kerry is correct. It was a recognition that is important to understand. In the mid-1970’s Henry Kissinger formulated the conditions for dialogue between the PLO and the American administration. They included an explicit and unconditional rejection of terror, acceptance of Resolutions 242 and 388, and recognition of Israel. The issue became relevant only in the late 1980’s. The PLO’s status was damaged after its expulsion to Tunisia and the outbreak of the first intifada. The PLO attempted to return to center stage through dialogue with the American administration. Sweden’s foreign minister Stan Anderson was enlisted to mediate the dialogue.

In November 1988 the Palestinian National Council took place in Algiers. It is remembered primarily for its declarations of independence. The same Council, for the first time, recognized UN Resolutions 181, 242 and 338. The developments were positive, but the decisions made there did not satisfy the US.

Anderson didn’t give up. He invited five leading U.S. Jews, led by Attorney Rita Hauser, to Stockholm to meet Arafat. At the press conference held at the conclusion of the meeting, Arafat denounced terrorism and declared his acceptance of the UN resolutions. Apparently this was the first time that the words ‘Jewish State’ came out of Arafat’s mouth; a development the New York Times reported. But the US Administration demanded a much more explicit declaration. To underscore its position, the US refused to grant Arafat a visa to speak before the United Nations, prompting the UN to hold a special session on December 13 in Geneva so that Arafat could speak.

Once again, the US was not satisfied by his declarations. George Shultz, then US Secretary of State, was not prepared to deviate from the explicit wording the US demanded. After two days of consultations, mediated by Anderson, Arafat convened a press conference, where he denounced terrorism and recognized UN resolutions 242 and 338. Arafat also once again declared, in his own voice, that the solution was ‘two states for two peoples’, and referred to Israel as the ‘Jewish state’. Arafat gave his statements in English, reading, in fact, what Shultz had given him. This time he met their demands. On that same day, December 15, 1988, Shultz announced that the President of the United States had decided to open a dialogue with the PLO.

The dialogue was short and futile. At the first outbreak of terror activity after the declaration, the PLO refused to denounce it. Iraq invaded Kuwait. Arafat supported Saddam Hussein. The dialogue came to an abrupt end. The Madrid Conference convened, and only the Oslo Accords brought the PLO back to center stage. But the Palestinians returned to their path of refusal. The Fatah Congress in 2009, which Abu Mazen chaired, voted unanimously to reject the idea of a ‘Jewish State’. Arafat himself, in another spin, reneged on his recognition of a Jewish state, in a newspaper interview in 2004. But this was a rare remark in a sea of contradictory decisions and declarations.

A number of questions remain. Why was the US government’s stubborn insistence on preconditions for talks legitimate, whereas Israel’s demands today, which aren’t a precondition, are somehow less legitimate? Secondly, if Abu Mazen, the PLO and Fatah retreated from Arafat’s consent – which was given publicly to the US administration, it is possible that every Palestinian agreement is in reality a deception. And thirdly, if it’s not a deception, and the Palestinians have already recognized a Jewish state, as John Kerry claims, then what’s the problem of working this agreement into the outline?

The discussion on this issue has also had a number of foolish claims. Take, for example, the question of what Abe Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League in the United States, would say if the US declared itself a ‘Christian state’? Another one, Efraim Halevi, former director of the Mossad, asked in all seriousness how Israel would react if the Palestinians demanded recognition as a ‘Muslim state’.

It’s unfortunate that serious individuals, very serious ones, especially from the Israeli side, made such spurious claims. First, the US is one of very few countries that aren’t nation-states. Most countries in the world are nation-states. Yugoslavia split into seven separate entities; Czechoslovakia into two; Pakistan broke off from India. Other states in Europe maintain national identities, even religious identities. In England, the religion of the state is Anglican, and if the next king marries a Jew their children won’t be able to inherit the crown. In Denmark, Article 4 of its constitution establishes the religion of the state as Evangelical – Lutheran, which is granted support and assistance from the state, and its King can only be of that religion. In Lichtenstein, the constitution recognizes Catholicism as the religion of the state. And the list can go on and on to many more states. So the comparison with the United States is, to say the least, a bit ridiculous.

Efraim Halevi is a little more worrisome, in that he also served as Israel’s ambassador to the European Union. He is supposed to be knowledgeable of the basic facts. He is also supposed to be aware of all the drafts of the Palestinian Constitution that establish ‘Islam as the religion of the state’. There is no need to wait for a state with a constitution. That is exactly what Article 4 of the Basic Law of the Palestinian Authority states.

The demand for recognition of a Jewish state is aimed at achieving two things: ending the fantasy of the ‘right of return’ and bringing an end to the conflict. It’s correct that Israel doesn’t need Palestinian permission to be the nation-state of the Jewish people. That is self-definition. But Netanyahu’s demand is legitimate precisely because the Palestinians themselves have said they oppose the Jewish state as a condition for continuing to demand the right of return of refugees.

It’s important to remember three other things. First, at the end the year 2000, it was Bill Clinton, who presented parameters for a peace plan that included the words: “Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people and the state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people“. Second, the Geneva Accords, a draft for a peace plan initiated and signed by senior peace activists from both sides, includes in its introduction an agreement of the right of the Jewish people to a state. And third, before Netanyahu, there was Tzipi Livni, and also Ehud Olmert who insisted on this demand, and recently Yitzhak Herzog, the leader of the Labour party, also declared his support for it.

All this is not to say that Israel has kept all its promises within the diplomatic framework with the Palestinians. Take for example the Road Map, in which Israel promised to freeze all building in the settlements and to dismantle outposts which had been built after 2001. That didn’t happen and neither did the Palestinian uphold their commitments to take action against terrorism.

As long as we’re talking about preparing a framework deal, we need to place the demand for recognition of a Jewish state within its historical context. It wasn’t Netanyahu and it was not the Israeli right. It was American administration officials, and dovish ones at that, who were adamant about pressuring Arafat to agree to this demand.

As long as the Palestinians stubbornly demand the ‘right of return’, which is tantamount to an end to the State of Israel, the insistence on recognition of a Jewish state is basically an insistence on the solution of two states for two peoples. And anyone who justifies the Palestinian refusal is not bringing peace any closer, but rather pushing the chances of a two state solution further away. There are other issues on which we need to oppose Netanyahu’s policies. On this issue however, he deserves total support. Not to torpedo peace. But just the opposite. To pave the way to peace.

About the Author
Ben-Dror Yemini is a senior journalist with the Hebrew daily Yediot Ahronoth who lectures about the spread and impact of anti-Israel propaganda. He can be contacted at
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