Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, met Barack Obama at the White House on 18 May 2009 without making any visible concession over the political future of the Palestinians. For Netanyahu, any recognition of Palestinian statehood (if he is prepared to conceive this at all) is conditional on the Palestinians’ willingness to recognise Israel as a “Jewish state”.
This view is widely shared across the Israeli political spectrum: then foreign minister Tzipi Livni made the same demand prior to the Annapolis summit in November 2007. The parties at that gathering could not reach an acceptable formula regarding the definition of the state of Israel. The impasse was in its way acknowledged in President George W Bush’s words: “This settlement will establish Palestine as the Palestinian homeland, just as Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people.” Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, gave similar voice to the problem when he said: “It is not my job to give a description of the state. Name yourself the Hebrew Socialist Republic – it is none of my business.”
This issue has a much longer history. Yasser Arafat‘s letter to Israel’s then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at the time of the signing of the Oslo accords of 1993 declared: “The PLO recognises the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.” But once again, the exact character of the state was left undefined.
Most Israeli critics of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process state that the Palestinians have never really accepted Israel’s right to exist because they refuse to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. There was, interestingly, no such demand made to Egypt or to Jordan when they signed peace agreements with Israel. The Israel-Jordan peace treaty (26 October 1994) and the Israel-Egypt peace treaty (26 March 1979) use identical words in committing each side to “recognise and respect each other’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence”. In neither case is there explicit mention of a “Jewish state”.
An old confusion
There are two substantive reasons why the Palestinians refuse to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. The first is that Palestinians have not received from Israel any clear answer regarding the status of more than one million Palestinians in Israel, in the event of their recognising Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinians fear they would be paving a road that would be used by Israel to transfer the Palestinian citizens of Israel to the Palestinian state. That fear is substantiated by the stated policies of Israel’s new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and the plans that he has outlined for moving the border between the two “states” in areas (such as Umm el-Fahem) where there are large clusters of Palestinian-Israeli citizens (see Laurence Louër, “Arabs in Israel: on the move“, 19 April 2007).
The second substantive reason for Palestinians’ refusal is that in their view, recognition will a priori remove the discussion of the rights of Palestinian refugees from the negotiation-table even before they have the chance to raise their claims and demands.
The United Nations resolution which provided international legitimacy for the creation of both the state of Israel and the Palestinian state. UN Resolution 181 of 27 November 1947, does refer to a Jewish state: “Independent Arab and Jewish States … shall come into existence in Palestine…” The Palestinian declaration of independence made in Algiers on 15 November 1988 calls on this very same international legitimacy for the founding of the Palestinian state: “…UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (1947), which partitioned Palestine into two states, one Arab, one Jewish, …provides those conditions of international legitimacy that ensure the right of the Palestinian Arab people to sovereignty.”
The definition of Israel as a Jewish state is found in Israel’s own declaration of independence on 14 May 1948: “…hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” The declaration has no official status in Israeli law. The reference to the Jewish state in Israeli law is in “the Basic Law: The Knesset” (1958) which declares that political parties or individuals who do not recognise Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state” cannot run in elections.
A new foundation
In practice and reality, Israel defines itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The character of the state is a secular-nationalistic definition and not a religious one. Israel is the state of the Jewish people in the same way that France is the state of the French people and not as Iran is an Islamic republic, but as Iran is the nation-state of the Iranian people. It is true that the definition of Judaism encompasses both religion and nationhood, but in international political relations between states, it is the secular definition and character which is in the forefront.
There should be a basic law in Israel which defines the character of the state of Israel. That law must come to terms with the 20% of the citizens of the country who were born here and who must be recognised as having a stake in the country. I am quite certain that if the law in Israel defined Israel as “the state of the Jewish people and all of its citizens”, the Palestinian leadership would be able to recognise Israel as such; and that most Jewish Israelis could live with this as well. The current lack of definition enables Israel’s Palestinian citizens to feel estranged from the state and allows the state to view those citizens as less than full citizens.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.