Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The 'Jewish State" question: A reaction to Palestinian positions

by Yossi Alpher, Dec. 17, 2007

The demand that as part and parcel of the emerging peace process Israel be recognized by the Palestinian leadership as a Jewish state, was voiced recently by PM Ehud Olmert as well as others in both government and opposition. The timing of Olmert's embrace of the concept appeared to have been motivated mainly by the political need to placate the right wing of his own coalition. One hopes that Olmert himself understands that, certainly at this point in the process, the demand is a non-starter and even a deal-breaker with Palestinians.

Nonetheless, the concept of Israel as a Jewish state is extremely important to understanding the evolution of mainstream Israeli views regarding peace with the Palestinian national movement as well as coexistence with the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

For most Israelis, Israel has always been a Jewish state, or, in a more secular formulation, the state of the Jewish people. After all, from an international legal standpoint this is the most legitimate definition of Israel. The Balfour declaration of 1917, later ratified by the League of Nations, declares that "Palestine will be reconstituted as the National Home of the Jewish People". UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947 creates an Arab state and a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine. The definition of Israel as a "Jewish state" was incorporated into Israel's declaration of independence of 1948 precisely in order to conform to international legality.

For the vast majority of Jews, the only rationale for Zionism is the existence of a Jewish state. Nor do most Israeli Jews see a conflict between "Jewish" and "democratic" or a problem in ultimately rationalizing the status of the Arab citizens of Israel as a national minority in a Jewish state, even though these are very thorny issues today.

The demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as a component of an end-of-conflict formula was on the periphery of the agenda of the Camp David negotiations in 2000. Israel never asked Egypt and Jordan to recognize it as a Jewish state when it negotiated peace treaties with them. Rather, the demand has emerged in recent years as a central Israeli position because, since Camp David, the Israeli mainstream has concluded from Palestinian demands and behavior that the ideal Palestinian vision of a two-state solution comprises an Arab state alongside a state called Israel that is understood by Palestinians as a future bi-national, Jewish-Arab state. Israel as Palestinians wish to see it would have a fast-growing indigenous Arab population and would confront pressures to absorb Palestinian refugees--based on the Palestinian understanding that Israeli acceptance of some responsibility for the events of 1948 constitutes de facto recognition that Israel was "born in sin" by expelling the indigenous Palestinians.

Today, given this Israeli perception of the ultimate Palestinian understanding of a two-state solution, Israel cannot permit itself in final status negotiations to accept even the symbolic return of a few thousand refugees--unless the Palestinians renounce the right of return and accept Israel as a Jewish state. In other words, the Israeli mainstream has concluded that the Palestinian demand for Israel to recognize the right of return, even if only "in theory" and to give Palestinians "psychological satisfaction", is contradictory to the two-state solution as Israelis understand it and as the international community intended.

The Palestinian negotiating position that has generated Israel's demand for recognition as a Jewish state is reflected not only in the right of return issue. At its core is apparently the Palestinian and broader Arab perception that Jews are either not a people or, if they are, they are not indigenous to the land now known as Israel.

Take Jerusalem. It was only at Camp David and thereafter that leading Palestinian spokesmen, from Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas on down, informed their Israeli counterparts that "there never was a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount". According to authoritative Palestinians, it was only at Camp David that the Palestinian side realized for the first time how important the Temple Mount actually is to Jews!

Never mind that prior to the conflict, Arab historiography readily acknowledged that the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif mosques were deliberately built on the ruins of the Temple in order that Islam benefit from the perception of continuity with Judaism. Today, the Palestinians are unable to accept a solution that acknowledges the historic Hebrew roots of the Mount and provides accordingly for Jewish access. And mainstream Israel is unable to accept anything less, lest it officially feed the Palestinian narrative that the Jews of Israel are merely a band of colonialists who lack roots in a land that they took by force.

The Palestinian position on this issue is also reflected in mainstream Israeli Arab position papers published during the past year that, in effect, demand that Israel become a bi-national state. This means that the future status of Israel's Palestinian citizens is now directly linked to the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the Jewish state issue.

Admittedly, it was pointless and needlessly provocative for Olmert to raise this issue now, just as FM Tzipi Livni need not have asserted so bluntly that Palestinian citizens of Israel could find their national identity in the emergence of a Palestinian state. But Palestinians must understand that, first, these Israeli assertions are a direct reaction to the positions they themselves take regarding the ultimate nature of Israel, and second, the conflict cannot be definitively resolved until and unless Palestinian positions on issues like refugees and Jerusalem reflect an acknowledgement that the state of Israel is built upon Jewish history and tradition in the historic homeland of the Jewish people.

Note that the Israeli mainstream, which supports a two-state solution, has no difficulty offering a parallel acknowledgement to Palestinians regarding their history, tradition and homeland.- Published 17/12/2007 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former special adviser to PM Ehud Barak.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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