To Recognize Or Not To Recognize – Is That The Question?

A little more than three months are left for State Secretary Kerry’s nine months commitment to reach some sort of breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. One of the most contested issues is whether the Palestinians would recognize Israel as a Jewish State. Prime Minister Netanyahu made a point of this principle in numerous speeches and countless interviews. Recognition is “the real key to peace”, “the minimal requirement” and “an essential condition”, he insisted. In response, Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), has categorically rejected the demand.
“To recognize or not to recognize” – is that the question?*

The Israeli demand

Many emphasize with Netanyahu’s demand, at least 73 percent of Israelis support it. The same majority is also ready to forgo control over the West Bank and accept a Palestinian State. Israelis are ready to do so only for a true end of conflict. They are skeptic and hesitant, as they fear that no matter how much territory is ceded to the Palestinians, they will continue to be rejected by their Arab neighbors.

This is understandable, considering how Jewish sovereignty had been ruled out by the Arabs since the first waves of Jewish immigration to Ottoman controlled Palestine in the 19th century, throughout the violent riots of the early 20th century and the wars that followed the Arab rejection of the U.N. partition plan of 1947 (which the Jewish leadership accepted).

Many Israelis see themselves as a little David of eight million people against a Goliath of more than 400 million Arabs or perhaps even 1.5 billion Muslims. Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State is perceived by many as a litmus test for how serious (or unserious) the Arabs really are about peace.

On the other hand, Netanyahu’s demand makes hardly any sense. Israel is one of the oldest members of the United Nations. Between Israel and some 160 states there is mutual recognition, economic and security cooperation, cultural relations, and an ongoing dialogue on a wide range of issues including environmental sustainability, gender equality, health, education and technological developments. This includes several Muslim and Arab countries.

None of these countries formally recognized Israel as a “Jewish State”, but instead the relationships reflect mutual interests. In light of all of this, Israel should also seek to promote its interests with the Palestinians. If they agree on a border, renounce violence and commit to peaceful relations, that’s more than enough. Regarding how exactly Israel is being recognized, will ultimately depend on how Israel defines itself. As put by Yair Lapid (current finance minister and chair of the second largest faction in the Knesset): “I don’t feel we need a declaration from the Palestinians that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state. My father didn’t come to Haifa from the Budapest ghetto in order to get recognition from Abu Mazen.”

The Palestinian rejection

The Palestinians have repeatedly sworn to reject Netanyahu’s demand. The Palestinian fear is that no matter what conditions they would follow, Israel will never grant them true freedom. From their perspective, they are the David and Israel is the Goliath, a story of an impoverished and divided minority that is threatened by a mighty military occupation.

The demand at first seems unfair. Why does Israel demand recognition from the Palestinians, but not from any other nation? What does “Jewish State” even mean? Palestinians cannot be asked to recognize Israel as a “Jewish State”, when there is no consensus within Israel on the meaning of the term.

After more than 20 years of “peace talks”, every Israeli demand invokes a great deal of suspicion. Does Israel plan to use such a formal recognition to forcefully transfer the Palestinian minority of Israel, as some understand Foreign Minister Lieberman’s plan for “land and population swap”?

Perhaps the Israeli demand is presented to predetermine negotiations over the problem of Palestinian refugees, scattered mostly in camps without property or citizenship rights since 1948? Does Israel want to humiliate the Palestinians by pressuring them to accept a Zionist narrative about historical Palestine? Some of these suspicions may be totally groundless, but one can understand it after decades of conflict and occupation.

On the other hand, the Palestinian rejection of the Israeli demand is a silly disservice to the interests of the Palestinian people. It is silly, because on November 15th 1988, the U.N. General Assembly’s recognition of the “Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)” as “Palestine” was based on resolution 181, which “called for the establishment of an Arab State and a Jewish State in Palestine”.

So why not challenge Israel by recognizing it as a Jewish State? In return for this recognition, Israelis could be asked to recognize a Palestinian state on the land occupied in 1967. In this case, Palestinians should not have any objection in recognizing Israel in the manner it sees fit, whether it was Jewish or Chinese. Encouragingly, these words were said by PLO General Secretary Yasser Abed Rabo in 2010. Not so encouraging are the wall-to-wall condemnations he received or the rocks thrown at his house for making such a seemingly trivial statement.

Poster of the Zionist Organization of America campaign for UNGA's Resolution 181, 1947.
Poster of the Zionist Organization of America campaign for UNGA’s Resolution 181, 1947.


Google “Jewish State” and see how 223,000,000 related results can be excavated from just a pair of words. The controversy around it is a goldmine for political science professors and political commentators. In principle, there’s no harm in that. There is enough room on the World Wide Web to host double the noble jabber about history, Zionism, Islamism, colonialism, and narratives.

Practically, however, both the demand for recognition and its rejection is undermining the future of millions of Israelis and Palestinians. Fortunately, not everyone works for social science faculties, think tanks, or for the media. There are enough people who simply don’t care that much about what formal statements are articulated and exchanged between politicians.

When a Palestinian drinks cappuccino in Ramallah or gets treated for pneumonia in a clinic in Nablus, he or she isn’t preoccupied with “narratives”. When an Israeli goes to work in an office in Haifa or catches the bus in Tel Aviv, he or she does not do it in the name of the “national identity”. The conflict becomes a concern to most Palestinians and Israelis when violence erupts, rockets fly and bombs are dropped, buses explode, military curfews are enacted, and the lives of entire families are ruined.

Considering the real horrors that this conflict entails, endless deliberations on recognition are a tasteless distraction. Netanyahu can easily forgo his demand for recognition, and Abbas can just as easily accept it. The fate of the “Jewish State” question may provide wonderful contents for an op-ed or a blog-piece. It is not what serious and responsible leaders should be dealing with.

Think of Begin and Saadat, and the hurdles they crossed for an agreement. Think of the relationship Rabin and Hussein had and how they brokered the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. Then think of Netanyahu and Abbas fixated over the “Jewish State” question. These are not leaders for peace. At best, these are petty bureaucrats in a “never-ending-peace-process”.

* An earlier version of this article was published on: The Axis of Goodness.

About the Author
Tal Harris is the spokesperson of MK Amir Peretz (the Zionist Union) and a PhD candidate in sociology on urban migration discourse, policy, and practice at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. Tal is also the former Executive Director of OneVoice Israel. As executive director, Tal expanded OneVoice's Youth Leadership Program in partnership with the National Union of Israeli Students. He has led several nation-wide media campaigns, and co-launched of the first-ever Caucus for the Two-State Solution in the Knesset (now the Caucus for Ending the Israeli-Arab Conflict), which engages more than 40 Members of Knesset across several factions. In 2012 Tal was elected as a member of the Steering Committee for the Israeli Peace NGOs Forum. Currently studying for his PhD in sociology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Tal holds a Master's in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and a Bachelor's in Philosophy and Politics from the Open University. He regularly participates in international conferences, panel debates and assemblies including the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Qatar and Brazil; the House of Commons in the UK; and the Israeli Knesset. Tal regularly publishes articles about Israel, Palestine and the two-state solution in the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, The Daily Beast, Times of Israel, Huffington Post, Israel-Palestine Journal and more. Opinions expressed are personal and do not reflect those of the Israeli Labor Party and MK Peretz.