U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama Photo by Archive
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U.S. President Barack Obama has updated America's official vision of Israel's future to stress that the Jewish state must ensure equal rights for Israeli Arabs. His new National Security Strategy, released by the White House last month, defines the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that differs from the terminology used by previous American administrations. According to the document, the U.S. seeks two states that will live side by side in peace and security: "a Jewish state of Israel, with true security, acceptance, and rights for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestine with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967 and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people."

Earlier statements by Obama had described Israel as an "independent Jewish state," but made no mention of the rights of its citizens. The new version apparently seeks to address the Palestinian claim that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would harm the rights of Israeli Arabs.

It may also be a response to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's campaign to condition citizenship on loyalty.

Israel first asked the U.S. to recognize its identity as a Jewish state following the failure of the Camp David summit in 2000, and has repeated this request many times since. Recognition as a Jewish state is widely seen as a barrier to the Palestinian demand for a "right of return" for millions of Palestinian refugees and their offspring.

Former secretary of state Colin Powell urged the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state for the first time in November 2001, and this demand was later reiterated by then-president President George W. Bush. During the November 2007 Annapolis Conference, for instance, Bush said that Palestine should be the Palestinians' homeland, "like Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began his tenure by making Palestinian recognition of Israel's Jewish identity a prerequisite for a permanent settlement. Senior Palestinian Authority officials adamantly rejected this demand, expressing concern that such recognition would undermine the rights of Israel's Arab citizens.

In a speech to the Knesset two weeks ago, Netanyahu reiterated this demand, saying that in his view, there is no such thing as an "Israeli people." "The first thing [in negotiations] is Palestinian recognition of the State of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people," he said. "When we are talking about a solution of two states for two peoples, one of these peoples is the Jewish people. It is not some Israeli people, it is the Jewish people."

Netanyahu added: "Recognizing the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people implies an understanding that the Palestinians are willing to put an end to their refusal to recognize the Jewish state within some border or another, [and that] they know the problem of the refugees must be resolved outside the borders of the State of Israel."

"The Jewish state's legitimacy does not stem from the Palestinians' recognition of us," he stressed. "But peace begins with the fact that this recognition must take root. First, it must be clearly declared as a necessary condition - not for the start of talks, but for their completion. From there, it must be inculcated among the Palestinian public and begin to influence school books, sermons and statements."

However, the identity Netanyahu proposes differs from the one Obama has just postulated: The prime minister spoke of a "state of the Jewish people," meaning one that is also a national home for Diaspora Jews, while the U.S. president spoke of a "Jewish state" with "rights for all Israelis."