Otherwise Occupied The Slippery Slope of Recognizing Israel as the Jewish State

The demand to recognize Israel's Jewish character has never before been included in peace talks, says a former Palestinian negotiator. So why is it now a major issue?

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Benjamin Netanyahu sold John Kerry a bill of goods and the American swallowed it. Granted, this wasn’t the wording selected by Nabil Shaath, Fatah’s commissioner for external relations, who explained why he thinks the U.S. secretary of state believed he had no choice but to swallow.

Kerry, said Shaath (amid much praise for the secretary’s integrity and intelligence), as a representative of the world’s biggest superpower, isn’t just thinking about justice and viability. “He is thinking about feasibility – about what he can do with the tools he has to get the Israelis to move towards peace,” said Shaath.

Speaking with members of the foreign press last Thursday, Shaath said, “Mr. Netanyahu can really go with pride to his people and say – you see? I tricked those damn Palestinians and now instead of talking about refugees, and a capital in East Jerusalem, and full withdrawal to the borders of 1967, and rights in water and their security requirements as well as ours, I now convinced the world that the agenda is composed of two items and two items only: recognition of the Jewish character of the state and recognizing the security needs of Israel in the Jordan valley.”

According to Shaath, “These are the two issues that are occupying most of the time of Mr. Kerry and the press and international community.”

Shaath, a former negotiator with the Israelis, said the demand for recognition of Israel’s Jewish character was not included in past talks, official and otherwise, or in any of the signed documents and agreements between the two sides. This demand was also never raised with the Jordanians or Egyptians when those peace accords were forged, he stressed.

“The only solid statement about the agenda of the permanent-status negotiations is in the Oslo Declaration of Principles, which spells out exactly the agenda to be discussed, and this includes Jerusalem, borders, settlements, water, security and refugees,” said Shaath.

Also, during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, he never brought up this demand in his meetings with Shaath. It was first brought up in 2010, in Washington.

At the start of the Oslo negotiations, Shaath notes, the Palestinians were asked to and agreed to unilaterally recognize the State of Israel, while Israel only recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. Hence, Israel did not recognize the Palestinian people or its right to a state. But even then, Shaath notes, the Palestinians were not asked to recognize Israel’s Jewish character. So where did this demand suddenly come from?

Palestinian opponents of Oslo say the unilateral recognition was the slippery slope that Yasser Arafat and his supporters embarked on. The problem for Shaath and his colleagues is that everything that their opponents argued 20 years ago – that Israel only intended to squeeze more and more concessions from the Palestinians – is being proved correct. At least that’s how the exhausted Palestinian public perceives it.

“No country in Europe today has a totality of exclusive race or exclusive ethnic origin or religion or past,” said Shaath. “It would be very embarrassing for a Jewish American today to see us recognize the United States as a WASP state, or a white state, or an Anglo-Saxon, Christian state.”

Shaath said he acknowledges the Jewish people’s history of persecution and the ethnic cleansings that have been perpetrated against it. He is well aware, he said, of the horror of the Holocaust.

This is one reason, he implied, that he and Palestinians of his generation have gradually come to accept Israel’s existence. The solution of one state for two peoples, which he supported in the past – and of which he still dreams – is not realistic now, he says. And contrary to what people think – and here the old optimistic Shaath momentarily reappeared – Jews could live in the state of Palestine: First to visit, then to live there as residents, and later to buy land. Why not? But not as occupiers and settlers.

He says Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has stated several times he would not oppose the presence of an international force on the Palestinian border composed exclusively of Jewish-American soldiers, Jewish-French soldiers and so on. But he is opposed to the presence of Israeli army units, even if they would comprise only Druze and Arabs. In other words, the problem is not with the Jews but with the occupier, he emphasized.

The slippery slope is important in understanding the reasons Shaath gave for the Palestinians’ refusal to sign a statement of recognition that would give legal and constitutional validity to Israel’s Jewish exclusivity.

At the least, such a demand implies the marginalization as a second-class citizen of anyone who is not a Jew. It could pave the way for legally sanctioned discrimination against any citizen who is not a Jew, and it essentially asks the PLO to abandon the Palestinian citizens of Israel to an unknown fate of abuse and discrimination. Recognizing Israel’s Jewishness would require the Palestinians to erase their narrative – their history and that of the country as experienced by them.

As has been explained in the media, the demand for the recognition of Israel’s Jewishness entails the demand that the Palestinians cede the right of return.

But at the January 2001 Taba talks, said Shaath, the Israeli side recognized the right of return as part of the principles of a future accord (based on UN Resolution 194). Given past experience and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s current demands, it amounts to the weaker side being called on to agree from the outset to be subject to further expulsions.

“Do you think that any Palestinian leader in his right mind can ever accept this? Shaath asked rhetorically. “Or is this simply intended to make it impossible to sign a peace agreement with Israel?”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian representative Saeb Erekat Sept. 27, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Nabil Shaath, Fatah’s commissioner for external relationsCredit: AP

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


בנימין נתניהו השקת ספר

Netanyahu’s Israel Is About to Slam the Door on the Diaspora

עדי שטרן

Head of Israel’s Top Art Academy Leads a Quiet Revolution

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

Skyscrapers in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

Israel May Have Caught the Worst American Disease, New Research Shows

ג'אמיל דקוור

Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel


Netanyahu’s Election Win Dealt a Grievous Blow to Judaism