Hussein Ibish

The real impact of Israel's "Jewish state" demand

The main impact of Israel's new "Jewish state" demand is to effectively negate the Palestinian recognition of Israel in 1993

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks into a room with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the 2010 negotiations

Many commentators, including this author, have carefully picked apart the myriad problems involved with Israel's new demand that the Palestinians formally recognize it as a "Jewish state." But at least one of its most problematic aspects has been significantly under-examined and underappreciated. The new demand negates, both in effect and intention, the greatest of Palestinian concessions, their 1993 recognition of the State of Israel.


There is an international consensus in favor of a two-state solution, and even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman now say they, too, support this goal after long careers opposing it. And in the quarter-century campaign to achieve a conflict-ending two-state agreement through direct talks, there remains a dangerous anomaly. One side, the Palestine Liberation Organization, recognized Israel up front. All other details aside, they have long since performed the sine qua non of a two-state agreement by recognizing Israel. The other side, Israel, has never recognized a Palestinian state or, in any formal, written, or legal sense, even the Palestinian right to a state.


There are a great many difficulties with the "Jewish state" demand, and Netanyahu's formulation "the nation-state of the Jewish people" in particular. This phrasing is full of highly problematic definite articles, and suggests a trans-historical claim to this land on behalf of an entire but undefined ethno-religious group the world over, not just the present Jewish Israeli majority. It harkens back to pre-state Zionism, defining Israel as if the state had not actually been created and several generations of Jewish and Arab Israelis had not been born there.


This framing also begs the question about the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who already face significant discrimination in many sectors because they are not Jewish. This is one of the reasons the PLO finds the demand so problematic: they will not agree to implicitly endorse the restrictions Palestinian citizens of Israel now face, or may face in the future.


Moreover, Israel itself cannot define what a "Jewish state" means, exactly. There were several attempts in the last Knesset to introduce legislation to clarify the term; all of them failed miserably because while there is a consensus among Jewish Israelis that their state is in some sense "Jewish," there is no consensus whatsoever as to what that entails. So, in effect, Palestinians are being asked to agree to something that even the Israelis cannot define with any degree of specificity.


The "Jewish state" demand was first introduced in 2007 at the Annapolis meeting, never having been mentioned in previous Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians, let alone with Egypt or Jordan. It was dismissed by not just the Palestinian delegation, but also the American one, both recognizing it as an attempted end-run around the final status issue of Palestinian refugees. The matter was accordingly dropped.


However, when Netanyahu was reelected in 2009, he made the “Jewish state” phrase the centerpiece of his relations with the Palestinians. He now not only insists that this is an important issue – sometimes he even says it is the only real issue (although how Israelis missed "the only real issue" with the Palestinians until 2007 is impossible to explain).


Many commentators have long understood that Netanyahu has made this such a focus of his policy for two clear reasons. The first is to put his own stamp on a process that had been defined before he came to power. The second is to continue the attempt to defuse the refugee issue, particularly as a quid pro quo for Israeli compromises on Jerusalem.


A frequently-cited third interpretation is that the single-minded insistence on this demand could reflect a cynical effort to find something most Israelis would find important that Palestinians cannot agree to. If the aim is to sabotage peace talks, such an initiative would be invaluable. It's possible that this is, or at some stage was, part of the calculation.


Netanyahu has won over many Israelis and their friends to this new de facto final status issue, basically by playing on Israeli anxieties that an agreement might not actually end the conflict. Yet, it has always been agreed that a peace treaty would mean an end of conflict and all claims.


What has yet to be fully recognized is that the single most significant impact of this "Jewish state" demand is that it effectively dismisses and reverses the 1993 Palestinian recognition of Israel. This concession made it ridiculous for anyone to argue that the core of the problem was Palestinians’ refusal to recognize Israel. But now, hey presto, it is once again possible to present Palestinian recognition of Israel as a major issue, because it wasn't recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state."


It doesn't matter that no one ever asked the Palestinians to do so until 2007, or that there are a great many complications, ambiguities, and grave difficulties associated with it. It has become a mantra of much of the pro-Israel constituency the world over that the 1993 recognition of Israel by the PLO is all but irrelevant, and that until Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state," their intention to end the conflict and live in peace remains very much open to question.


So, this new demand solves the problem that one side is lived up to its core commitment under a two-state solution – recognizing the statehood of the other party – while the other side has not. It pushes the diplomatic, psychological, and political clock back before 1993, to an era where Palestinians are once again being asked to demonstrate their willingness to live in peace with Israel by uttering some magic mantra.


It elides the fact that, from a Palestinian and Arab point of view, the 1993 recognition of Israel was the mother of all concessions: a recognition that Palestinians were surrendering their political claim to around 78% of what had very recently been their country, in the sense that they were a large majority there until 1948. So now we are left negotiating over the territories conquered by Israel in 1967, without even touching the areas that became Israel in 1948. The enormity of this vast concession, this overwhelming – almost impossible – agreement by the Palestinians, was never fully recognized by Israel or the international community. And now, with the Jewish state demand, it's dismissed altogether as almost totally irrelevant.


In fairness, if ordinary Israelis and their supporters were more convinced by Palestinian words and deeds that this is the case, they would be less moved by Netanyahu's obsessive focus on the new "Jewish state" demand. It speaks, cleverly, to deep-seated Israeli anxieties. However, by effectively negating, at least at the psychological and cultural registers, the 1993 Palestinian recognition of Israel, it magically appears to even the scales once again.


But the truth remains that one party, the Palestinians, has recognized the independent statehood of the other, Israel. And Israel has never recognized an independent Palestine or the Palestinian right to an independent state. There are, apparently, still many things the Palestinians must do to "earn" such a right, if they are ever to have it at all, and that includes some sort of recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state." 


Until they do that, Israel and its hard-core supporters will bat aside the fact that Palestinians have actually recognized Israel, unrequited, since 1993, and speak and act as if that were irrelevant and the Palestinians haven't recognized Israel at all until they repeat the novel catechism now being placed before them.


As a diplomatic, psychological, and political sleight-of-hand, it's extraordinarily brilliant and effective. But its impact is to complicate diplomacy on a two-state solution and make peace more difficult to achieve, while obscuring the reality that Palestinians have recognized Israel but Israel has never recognized Palestine.

The focus is on him. (AFP Photo/Pool/Alex Brandon)

"It elides the fact that, from a Palestinian and Arab point of view, the 1993 recognition of Israel was the mother of all concessions."

  • john.lappart

    Mr. Morpher. No matter how many times a lie is repeated it is still a lie, except in the minds of those who wish to deceive themselves. Read some real history, the zionist colonialists planned and prepared to violently and brutally drive the native inhabitants out of Palestine, and began long before any armies from the surrounding nations sent military help to the Palestinians, who had been disarmed by the British. Your claim the native Palestinians would some how had everything they wanted is pure fiction, to be polite. The colonialist only use Jews as human shields behind which they still carry out their terrorism aimed at driving the Palestinians from their property. The founding myths and lies the colonial zionist state is based upon is crumbling and it will naturally fall.

    March 15, 2014



    March 15, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    What all the bleeding-hearted Jewish commentators to this post do not seem to notice themselves doing is that their advocacy for a self-styled Jewish Israel is exactly identical to the self-declared Muslim States around them that they critique right and left for being so backwards in their religious definition of themselves. In other words, a simple admission of a Jewish Israel being as backward and primitive as all the Muslim states around them. Any country that defines itself by religion is a scourge in today's otherwise enlightened world of ours. Both Muslims and Jews are adamant at keeping humanity chained to its Stone Age, beset with bloody racist and supremacist ideas from biblical times. When will the apparently more modern Jewish illuminati see themselves for what they really are: Arabs with a Jewish religion?

    March 13, 2014

  • Beiruti

    There are a number of problems with this demand for recognition as a "Jewish State": 1. The real purpose is to agree that demographically, Jews will remain in the majority in Israel. The problem is that you cannot decree nature and relative birthrates unless at some point in time, Israel starts expelling non-Jews from their homes to maintain a demographic majority. 2. Most Israelis are secular 3. Most Israelis do not agree among themselves who is a Jew. The Orthodox rabbinate has one definition and every other sect of Judaism has another. How can the Palestinians be asked to recognize a national identity that the Israelis do not know themselves? 4. If Israel is the Jewish Nation, what is the nationality of Jews who live in the US. Is their allegiance to be to Israel or to America or whatever country in which they reside? 5. This sounds too much like Germany being the national homeland of Germans. 6. What if America were to declare itself a White Nation. It smacks of racism and Jews are not racists, but Israel will be perceived as such. The real issue is demographics, this solution is no solution and poses more problems and questions than it solves

    March 12, 2014

  • david.altman.750

    Mr. Ibish, You seem to lack any concern for or mention the twenty-two countries in which Islam is a state religion. Are there not bloody, millennia-long schisms in Islam that separate hundreds of millions of people? Yet you do not seem to doubt these nations can and should proceed as Islamic States. Moreover, I am not a political naif, but Mr. Netanyahu's ploy could be easily diffused by Mr. Abbas simply writing in an open letter to the Knesset, copied to the major international wire services, that "The Palestinians reaffirm, as they have from 1993, from the lips of our founder and greatest national hero, Yasir Arafat, that we recognize Israel's right to exist, as a Jewish State, if that is what her sovereign people desire. Now stop resurrecting issues that are decades-settled and start talking about people, rights and land." In addition, nothing the PLO or any external Arab power does, effected the rights of Israeli Palestinians. These people won and continue to win their rights at the ballot box, in the Knesset and before the Israeli Supreme Court, not on account of any external Arab political pressures. Finally, any interested parties that keep track of the news know that there is a movement among Palestinians to seek an inalienable Right of Return from international judicial bodies that cannot be compromised even by treaties signed by their polity's government. Yet you seem to think that Israel should publicly stipulate that such an international law Right of Return exists, hoping some compromise can be reached subsequently with the PLO/PLA. Why? Once Israel stipulated to such a Right of Return, the PLO/PLA could simply sit back and watch international judiciary and political institutions destroy Israel until the "Right" was enforced, and then allow demographics to do the rest. If you do not know these things, you are, sir, unqualified to write this article. If you are aware, then stop writing propaganda.

    March 12, 2014

  • jack.morpher

    The Arabs and friends lost the lands in war in 1917, we should give the lands back to the Ottomans, no? why not? In 1918-1919 Woodrow Wilson sent fact finders to hear the local, who opposed a Jewish State, 1918-1919, looooong before Netanyahu THEY knew EXACTLY what Jewish state meant - Jewish majority and Jewish definition of Jewish, In 1947, some 25 years after the 1922 carve up finalized, per the 25-year rule, the UN created a teensy Israel, Bantustans mostly , and Araby objected, going to war in violation of UN rules that wars need UN permission, and they lost and all of that is conveniently forgotten by Palestinian victimologists if the Pals had accepted the 1947 vote they would have everything territorial and refugee that they whine about now and more excepting only their extirpation of the JEWISH (undefined, poorly defined) State - KISS -- keep it simple Sam -- a Jewish State is whatever Jews say it is , Sam Before the 147 there were no trans-1967-border settlements and so THAT was not the problem although the entire enterprise ' Yishuv' means Settlement was a settlement Arafat's acceptance was noise and not serious, Why now? Probably b/c as peace' draws near it will be the peace of Arab demographic victory or refugee triumphalism Again if the Pals had accepted the 1947 vote there would have been no refugee problem, let them solve their own problem, starting with sixty or a hundred years of reparations for illegal warfare

    March 12, 2014

  • Dave

    Arafat accepted Israel as a"Jewish State". Is Abbas more of an extremist than Arafat? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p1nQDMdi_1U Well maybe. He recent said "" it's better they[Palestinians] die in Syria than give up their right of return," Think about that. Abbas's position is that it is better for any Palestinian to die than give up their "right of return." He is essentially saying he will never agree to anything less than millions of Palestinians "returning" to Israel. http://news.yahoo.com/palestinian-leader-rejects-deal-syria-refugees-105551580.html You can pretend anything you like, but the real reason is obvious. Because the Palestinians are going to demand even more even after a peace accord is reached. The only way to end the conflict is for all Palestinians to truly accept the Israel as the home of the Jewish people (who equal rights to all its citizens). Think about it, Palestinians can't even accept a few words because it means they have to accept the concept that Islam will not be the only official religion of every single state in the middle east. It is anethema. On the other hand no Jews will be allowed to live in a future Palestinian state. And lets face it, there is no Palestinian leader who can make peace. Abbas barely has control of the West Bank let alone Hamas controlled Gaza.

    March 11, 2014

  • Bill G.

    The reason for the demand for recognition of Israel as the Jewish state is really quite simple. The Israelis know that Muslim law prohibits lands previously conquered in the name of Islam (waqf) to revert to non-Muslim infidels. This is particularly true of Jews who may live as dhimmis under Muslim rule. For Palestinian Arabs and the Muslim ummah at large to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish State is therefore theologically unthinkable. The only difference between the PA and Hamas is that Hamas comes right out and says this. The problem for Netanyahu and Israel is that in the absence of such an acknowledgement, any agreement with Abbas and the PA will only rise to the level of a truce (hudna) that may be broken at will. The Israelis will be forced to live with the ongoing "salami strategy" and an endless jihad to regain Muslim lands. We got a taste of this yesterday from the Arab League and Fatah Governing Council. Until the OIC and/or 22 Arab states accept and recognize Israel as the lone Jewish state in their midst, Netanyahu and the Israelis would be foolish to agree to anything less with the PA. Why would they?

    March 11, 2014

  • samuel.rotenstreich

    From inside the Middle East, and as Israeli perspective in particular, the two main points of this post are shaky at best. The PLO recognition of Israel is not a sure thing. Listening to Palestinian voices in Arabic will easily detect a one state solution and it's a Palestinian one without any shades or colors. Netanyahu, undoubtedly, uses all means at his disposal to hinder and obstruct peace; that's not news. Palestinian Israelis are discriminated against not because it's a Jewish state, Israel or Canaan. They are a minority and people find all excuses possible to discriminate against minorities. Jews are a good example. (ha ha ha) It's still true for Native Americans, First Nations, Roma, Maurois, etc. The war makes things worse. The current Jihady Israeli government made discrimination a national goal. A Jewish State per se will not change much. For all the screaming against a demand for a Jewish State, what about self-determination? If Israelis want their state to be called Jewish, the semi-fancy argumentations about its ill defined implication notwithstanding, it's none of your business. If Burma want to be Myanmar, this is what it is.

    March 11, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Every time peace negotiations get close to a resolution, Israel raises a new condition. First it was recognition of the state of Israel, then it was the PLO dropping a clause in its charter, then it was recognizing the settlements..... Meanwhile the Palestinians have maintained three demands which have never changed: Recognition of Palestinian identity and statehood within the 1967 borders; Jerusalem or parts thereof as a Palestinian capital; and Right of Return (emphasis: "Right" of return, not "return" per se). The Israeli modus operandi should now be clear to anyone who has not seen it yet: While military odds are in Israel's favor, keep eroding whatever Palestinian attributes of statehood (by evictions, demolitions, Jewish settlements....), keep stealing as much as you can from the West Bank, and do not get to a solution. As facts on the ground become increasingly in Israel's favor, and the day comes when a solution is unavoidable, any final negotiations would have achieved maximum gains for the Israeli side. The downside to this strategy is that the enmity which the Israelis have thus engineered might make - or perhaps already has made - any eventual reconciliation impossible. Some deep scars never heal. Which brings to mind the analogy of the Zionist idea of the State of Israel with the Crusader Kingdoms of a millennium ago. Same basic idea - to retake by force land declared as holy by primitive religious edicts - and same basic strategy - keep bringing in horde after horde of colonists and settlers... In the end, having made no friends with the locals, the Crusader Kingdoms collapsed and the colonists went back home after 200 years of pillage and plunder. Israel seems to believe that military might is key to its success, regardless of how unsustainable this could be on the long run. As with the Crusades, time is not on Israel's side, the current equilibrium will inevitably change, the odds will no longer be in Israel's favor, and Israel's story might very wel

    March 11, 2014