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On Recognising Israel as a Jewish State


Dr. Azmi Bishara

Lately, Israeli officials have been reiterating the demand that the Palestinian National Authority recognise Israel as a Jewish state or as a state for the Jewish people. This is a significant notch up from the Israeli demand in the pre-Oslo period that the PLO "recognise Israel and renounce terrorism" as a precondition for talks. 

"Jewish state" is the rubric for the right of self-determination for a people that are bound to the "land of Israel" by an exclusive "historic right." The current Israeli government has recently made Palestinian acceptance of this concept a precondition for a permanent solution.

The purpose of this paper is to analyse this demand as directed externally at the level of foreign relations, to emphasise the distinction between this and the demand to recognise Israel as a Jewish state as directed internally to Arabs inside Israel, and to recommend policy stances for the Palestinian Authority and Arab officials.

It was the Kadima movement, founded by Ariel Sharon, that first voiced this demand as a condition for a lasting solution on the basis of "two states for two peoples." The two-state principle, itself, is not new. It had long been advocated by the Zionist left which saw in the creation of a Palestinian state (tailored to Israeli specifications, naturally) a kind of demographic safeguard for the Jewishness of Israel.

The Zionist left further believed that Arab recognition of Israel must comprise more than just the acceptance of the existence of their state. They held that the Arabs must also recognise the Jewish right to self-determination and to establish a state in Palestine (the "Jewish" referred to world Jewry, not just to Israelis).

The "two states for two peoples" solution was not only advocated by Zionist peace forces in Israel. The banner was also hoisted by non-Zionist forces, such as the Israeli Communist Party and the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, in the 1980s and 1990s, and the two-state principle (as defined by the 1967 borders, of course) remains an item on their platforms.

The two-state principle-turned-slogan merely calls for a state for Palestinians and another for Jews. Its advocates have no control over what constitutes the geographical boundaries of the "Jewish people", or over the definition of the boundaries of the territory and sovereignty of the proposed Palestinian state. Such issues rest in other hands.

Internationally they have been left to the balances of powers in negotiating processes, and these, in the absence of a clear frame of reference, reproduce Israeli dictates. As a consequence of this lack, resolutions 242 and 338, and numerous other international resolutions, have fallen by the wayside.

What remains of "two states for two people" is the demand to recognise Israel as Jewish state, and a Palestinian state that is smaller than the territories Israel occupied in 1967, territories in which Palestinians are deprived of sovereign rights after having relinquished, moreover, all claims to Jerusalem and the right to return.

Tzipi Livni pursued this recipe for a permanent solution with her every word and deed when she served as foreign minister under the Olmert government.  Olmert, himself, made it explicit in his speech before Arab delegations in Annapolis on the 27th of November 2007, in which he essentially recited the Sharon project for the creation of a Palestinian state that met Israeli conditions. One of the chief prerequisites for Israeli approval of a Palestinian state is that it would be a package deal that would include an end to all Palestinian demands - most importantly the right to return and recognition of Israel as Jewish state.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his foreign minister, Lieberman, turned this condition into a refrain or, more precisely, a little ditty that can be sung in a snap in response to any demand the Palestinians air at the negotiating table, even one pertaining to a temporary freeze on settlement construction.

They were assisted in this modulation by the American president of their era, Barack Obama, who stressed his country's commitment to Israel as a "Jewish state" in his speech to AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) in the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections and who has since reiterated this pledge, most recently in his address to the UN General Assembly in September 2010.

It is not easy to dissociate the demand to recognise the Jewishness of the state of Israel from the fever that has swept the Knesset in its past three terms, attempting to push through discriminatory anti-Arab legislation with bearing on the character of the state. Nevertheless, the distinction must be drawn, for there is, indeed, a difference between the conflict that has arisen domestically as a consequence of the inherent contradiction between the concept of the Jewishness of the state and the principles of democracy and equal citizenship.

This contradiction has given rise to constant analysis and struggle because of how this state defines itself, its role, and its functions, all of which have been Zionist and Jewish from the outset,(1) and the oft repeated Israeli stipulation that the Palestinians and Arabs must recognise Israel on this basis.

If anyone believes that Israel has only just proclaimed itself to be a Jewish state by means of this stipulation and that the announcement of this stipulation presages the expulsion of the Arabs living in Israel, one could rightfully ask them what world they have been living in until today. Israel declared itself a Jewish state in its Proclamation of Independence in 1948 and the Zionist movement had been planning and working towards that end for half a century before that.

The movement's determination to create a Jewish state not in name only but also in fact, which is to say a state with a predominantly Jewish population, led to the expulsion of the Arab majority of Palestine to the other side of what would become the Green Line, the border demarcated by the truce of 1949.

The expulsion of the Arab majority moved into full swing in 1948. Since then, Israel has been building itself and its institutions as a Jewish state. This is the cause for which it has appropriated Arab land and promoted Jewish immigration to Israel, and the cause that stimulated the rivalry between its secularists and religious conservatives over what exactly the "Jewishness" of the state means.

Also from 1948 onwards, the Arabs of Palestine who became citizens of that state have been a minority in their own land. More recently, since the 1990s, they have developed a growing awareness of the contradiction between the principle of equal citizenship and the Jewishness of the state, a consciousness that has been shaped and refined by new nationalistic intelligentsia.(2)

The concept and reality of the Jewish state generated two controversies. One is being fought out between Jewish secularists and religious conservatives over how to define "Jewish." They wrangle over everything from who is or is not a Jew to the separation of religion and the state, with the secularists remaining steadfast against clerical dictates regarding personal status laws, individual freedoms, and anything that might impede the pursuit of a sophisticated secular life.

The second is the conflict between the Jewishness of the state and the concept of citizenship inclusive of how this applies to the Palestinian Arabs who had become citizens of Israel. This latter conflict has diverse facets, such as the sanctity of the Jewish right to return versus the rejection of the Palestinian right to return, the systematic confiscation of Arab land and property on the grounds that it serves the public welfare of a state that has set as its principle task the in-taking of Jews from the diaspora, and routine bureaucratic discrimination against Arab citizens in many other aspects of life.

The definition of Israel as a Jewish state could live fairly comfortably with an Arab minority that accommodated to the Jewishness of the state and second class citizenship. What Israel, at both the official and the popular level, is finding increasingly difficult to stomach is the rise, since the 1990s, of Arab political forces from within that espouse the notion that the state should belong to all its citizens and that Arab citizens of Israel should have the right to preserve their identity as Palestinian Arabs and to communicate with the Arab world in this capacity.

This conflict intensified in tandem with the Arabs' ability to consciously grasp the contradiction between the Jewishness of the state and the concept of citizenship, and their readiness to turn the resolution of this contradiction into a political drive for full equality, which is, naturally, inconsistent with Zionist ideology.

It should be stressed that the conflict is not between the existence of an Arab minority in Israel and the Jewishness of the state. The state has been Jewish since its establishment and had no difficulty accommodating to an Arab minority as long as it accepted this status and knew its place. The conflict is between the demand for full equality for Arab citizens of the state and the Jewishness of the state.

The "Jewishness" of Israel is a longstanding reality in ideology and practice in Israel. Having laid out the types of contradictions and conflicts this has engendered inside the state since its establishment, we return to the Israeli foreign policy demand regarding the Palestinian Authority recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. What does this demand signify, and what would it mean to concede to it? 

A brief history

It appears that the first person to speak of recognising Israel as a "Jewish state" at the foreign policy level was the US Secretary of State under Bush, Colin Powell, in a speech he delivered in the autumn of 2001. While Powell did not mention how this phrase crept into his speech, David Ivry, then Israeli ambassador to the United States, admitted to having a hand in the matter.(3)

As noted above, the expression couched as a condition in Israeli diplomacy, as opposed to how it was wielded domestically, dates to the Sharon era. In 2003, on the 25th of May,  the Israeli cabinet convened a special meeting to discuss the "roadmap" that President Bush had formally submitted to Israel on April 30 that year, shortly after the US invasion of Iraq. The Israeli government did not approve the American plan. In its official statement it accepted "the steps set out in the roadmap," and appended a list of 14 "reservations."(4)

The sixth of these stipulates that the Palestinians must "waiver any right of return for Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel." Then, in the following sentence, which explains or serves as a practical translation of the first, it states that the Palestinians must make "declared references to Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state in the introductory statements issued by leaders at the beginning of the roadmap." This is precisely how the Sharon cabinet worded its response to the "roadmap" that it never accepted in the first place, contrary to what people have generally been led to believe. It was the first time the Israeli government expressed its demand for recognition in this manner.

The "Palestinian side" did not respond to this demand in the Aqaba conference. Even so, Bush incorporated the Israeli demand into his speech on 4 June 2003, in which he affirmed America's commitment to Israel "as a vibrant Jewish state."

Obama followed suit, several times, as we observed above. But even before them, when airing some ideas in Camp David, President Clinton spoke of a Palestinian state that would become a national home for the Palestinians alongside Israel as a state that served as a national home for the Jews. Still, it was only after the Camp David talks failed that Israeli officials began to press for the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition to Israeli acceptance of the two-state solution and to insist upon it as the final introductory formula for the Palestinian waiver of the right to return before the start of negotiations.

In an interview with Ha'aretz,(5) Yasser Arafat mentioned that the Palestinians had accepted the Jewish state in 1988 when the PLO officially agreed to the creation of a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1947 partition resolution.

The interviewer seized upon Arafat's remark and asked, "Do you recognise Israel as a Jewish state?" At first Arafat tried to evade the question, but when the interviewer kept pressing him with the same question he eventually said, "Certainly....certainly."  Also in that interview, Arafat revealed that he was not far from reaching an agreement in Geneva in which he would accept the Jewish state and the principle of two states for two people, adding that he had sent a "personal representative" to deliver a speech on his behalf in Geneva. Arafat at the time was under siege in Ramallah, and at the height of his isolation.

Perhaps he was trying, in his own well-known way, to curry favour with the Ha'aretz readership among the Israeli intelligentsia. In all events, the Israelis did not take his remarks seriously even though they constituted a framework of principles that should have been tempting to Israel. In the end, the interview simply furnished further proof that demonstrations of good faith and concessions, when offered from a position of weakness, do little to win over the adversary. In fact, they generally provoke ridicule and derision.

In that same interview, Arafat said that whereas the peace with Egypt did not bring Israel great international rewards, the Oslo accords with the Palestinians resulted in a surge of international recognition "from China to India and from Malaysia to Indonesia."

His point was that only the Palestinian people could win legitimacy for Israel in the Third World and the Islamic world.  Perhaps this is the part that is of chief concern to Israel. If so, that would make recognition of Israel as a Jewish state a secondary aim, in the achievement of which Israel would win recognition of not only its existence, but also the Zionist creed. Such recognition would be tantamount to an admission that in the struggle over the land of Palestine, the Zionists were right all along and the Palestinians were wrong when they refused to acknowledge at the very least that the conflict was between two equal rights to the same piece of land.

The "Jewish right," here, is naturally more historical, if we can use this term, and it is simultaneously more achievable in view of the balances of power. If the Palestinians recognise that historical Jewish right and admit to having only a temporal and unrealised right whose fulfilment requires a Zionist stamp of approval, it would be the end of the Palestinians.

The question is definitely of concern to the Palestinian Arab citizens in Israel, but there is nothing new in this, regardless of the growing stridency of Lieberman's rants about population transfer.

Lieberman is not in a position to make political decisions in Israel; he is, however, a dangerous player, constantly upping his price which the Likud is forced to meet for fear of losing his votes against the backdrop of a domestic climate that is veering more and more to the extreme right, to the degree that Lieberman's party could win 20 seats if Knesset elections were held at this time.

The contradiction between the Jewishness of the state (i.e., Zionism) and the indigenous inhabitants produced the nakba, as well as the refugee question, and has since produced ethnic discrimination against the Arabs inside Israel. More recently, the discrimination has been growing more acute.

Since the Arabs in Israel have begun to develop an awareness of the contradiction between Zionism and the civic state, and have started to press for equal citizenship in a state that is for all its people, and for the right to retain and express their Palestinian Arab identity. Israel has fought to repress this consciousness through intimidation, vilification, and loyalty laws. However, this is not why Israel is pressing for recognition as a Jewish state from the international community and from the Palestinians and Arabs, in particular.

It is important to bear in mind, here, that the Israeli use of this demand is, in part, aimed at dragging out and obstructing the negotiating process. It is consistent with the Israeli tactic of adding new conditions at every stage in the game. It is an endless game because there is no clear frame of reference governing the negotiating process, and because the Palestinians have relinquished all other options apart from this process. This is why accepting Israeli conditions has become a process of gradual caving in to a phasing scheme of Israeli design. Every Israeli demand merely defines a phase that leads to the next demand.


The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) accepted the Israeli precondition for engaging in the Oslo talks. It declared itself ready to recognise Israel, to "renounce terrorism," and to amend its charter to this effect. Furthermore, it did all this in order to win Israeli recognition of the PLO, not of Palestinian rights. In the negotiations, it suddenly discovered a list of other Israeli demands, the most important being that it was to act as Israel's security guard before the occupation was lifted.

Prior to this, Israel had proposed the "land for peace" formula. It should be stressed that the formula originated in Israel. The Israeli government had stated that it retained the territories it occupied in 1967 as buffer zones, or as administrated areas, in order to exchange them for peace and recognition from the Arabs.

When the largest Arab state agreed to the formula, Israel achieved its aim from the 1967 war which was Arab recognition of Israel, and peace without a solution to the Palestinian cause, which is to say solidifying the nakba with an Arab seal of legitimacy. Later, however, when the rest of the Arab countries took up the Israeli land-for-peace formula, and turned it into a negotiating principle in the Madrid talks, Israel rejected it.

The Israeli PM at the time, Yitzhaq Shamir, countered with "peace in exchange for peace." After Shamir, Israel returned to the Madrid formula, but was heavily modified by the addition of new conditions.

Misguided policies

Some officials and commentators in the media believe that the Israeli demand for Palestinian, and then, perhaps, Arab recognition of Israel as a Jewish state implies the expulsion of the Arab citizens in Israel. Such an understanding is doubly wrong even presuming the best of intentions. On the one hand, it implies a diminishment of the Arab role, and an evasion of its responsibilities; on the other, it lends itself to fear-mongering. Israel proclaimed itself a Jewish state six and a half decades ago, and its ideology, practices, and essential being have been consistent with this since 1948. This reality brought the expulsion of the Arab majority from their native homeland, and engendered ethnic discrimination among those who remained. Discrimination prevails at the level of citizenship, and in the form of the destruction of Palestinian Arab identity. However, Israel has never sought to expel the remaining Arabs because of its own Jewish identity; it never had to as long as it had a sizeable Jewish majority.

In addition, any expulsion plan would be unfeasible, firstly, because of international circumstances and, secondly, because of the growing Arab political consciousness and their refusal to be expelled. Such a facile treatment of this subject is unsustainable.  Yet sensationalist alarmism   has the effect of transforming a totally outrageous idea into something familiar, or even banal, thus, bringing it into the realm of the possible. Expulsion, or "transfer," is not possible, nor achievable, anymore, and must be treated as such. In addition, we must once again bear in mind the distinction drawn above between the Israeli demand to recognise the Jewishness of the state as directed domestically, inside Israel, and externally, toward the Palestinians and Arabs. The Israeli establishment did not just declare itself to be Jewish yesterday. The demand to recognise this character is old news to the Arabs inside Israel, as is the steady drift of Israeli society to the right and racism, which has increased in ferocity at the official and popular levels as Arab citizens have demonstrated an increasing boldness in foregrounding the inherent contradiction in the Zionist state and opposing its exclusively Jewish character.

The demand to recognise this character only came as a surprise to Arab governments, the PA and the PLO. Their response should not be to revert to the old, which is to harp on the spectre of the expulsion of the remaining Arabs in Israel. Mass expulsion occurred when the Jewish state proclaimed its independence and waged a war to occupy Palestine and drive out the majority of its Arab inhabitants. Rather, their response should be to adhere to the Palestinian right to return, on the one hand, and to refuse to grant legitimacy for Zionism, on the other. This is a diplomatic stance as well as a political, educational and cultural process.

Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies