Is the “Jewish State” Another Obstacle to the Peace Process?

Deal W. Hudson
May 21, 2009

In Monday’s meeting at the White House, President Barack Obama strongly urged Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to reopen the peace process toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Obama also told Netanyahu, with surprising bluntness, “Settlements have to be stopped.”

The response from Netanyahu was ambiguous. At first, he said he would pursue the peace process “immediately,” but speaking to journalists later, emphasized he had not endorsed an independent Palestinian state. He added that a prerequisite for any agreement was the Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a “Jewish state.”

Though some scoff at it, there is no question that Palestine has officially recognized Israel’s right to exist since 1988, and which was reiterated in 1993. What has now been added to Israel’s demand is the description of the nation as a “Jewish state.” The prime minister is not making this a pre-condition for negotiation but for reaching a final agreement.

The Israeli demand for its recognition as a “Jewish state” was first set forth by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the eve of the Annapolis conference hosted by the U. S. in 1997. Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, immediately rejected the demand saying it would very likely disallow the return of Palestinian refugees to homes and villages in the case of an agreement. Palestine’s President Mahmoud Abbas has recently repeated the objection.

The question inevitably arises, why does Israel want the Palestinians to affirm officially what everyone already knows? Isn’t this merely a dangerous semantic tango that creates yet another obstacle to a peace process that has long seemed doomed to failure?

Every civilized country in the world sees Israel as it defines itself. And Palestinians recognize Israel, but they have trouble officially recognizing its character as “Jewish” because they fear the immediate practical impact on refugees, borders, and their already tenuous identity.

Palestinian refugees now number over four million, and they claim a right of return to homes in what is Israel proper. The Palestinians have indicated their willingness to compromise on the “right of return,” as evidenced by the Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for a “just and agreed” resolution of the refugee problem with Israel. But recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state” will be seen by Palestinians as pre-determining that outcome without getting anything in exchange.

Israel has never defined its borders. In fact, it continually expands them, through the massive growth of settlements on Palestinian land and Jewish-only roads. Palestinians reasonably fear that by recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state” without getting anything in return, they are tacitly legitimizing Israel’s continued settlement of the West Bank.

The population of Israel, including those in the occupied territories, is 50% Palestinian. Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state for Palestinians living in the occupied territory appears to legitimize what they consider their third-class citizenship in what is their homeland too (this includes Palestinian citizens of Israel).

Since Palestinians entered the Oslo peace process with Israel in 1993, they haven’t seen anything in return, except for a tripling in Israeli settlers, construction of modern Israeli-only highways, a 40% drop in Palestinian GDP, and draconian restrictions on movement. An entire generation of Palestinian children in the West Bank has never been to the sea, even though many can see it from their homes.

Israel needs peace now more than ever. Rather than focusing on the semantics of a very difficult phrase, Israel – along with the Palestinians and the international community – needs to focus on bringing a stable and just solution to both Israelis and Palestinians.

Now is not the time to create more obstacles to the peace process. If Israel negotiates a genuine peace with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors, the next generation of Israelis and Palestinians may finally look forward to hoping, not more war and hatred.

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