Reportedly one of the key sticking points in negotiations being conducted by Secretary of State John Kerry to try to achieve a framework agreement for peace is Israel's insistence that Palestinians recognize Israel as a 'Jewish state.'
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In some senses, Israel is undoubtedly a Jewish state. Within its internationally recognized borders, it has a sizable majority that self-identifies, and is categorized by the state, as ethnically Jewish. Its primary language is Hebrew, and its main holidays and rhythm of daily life are Jewish.
Israel's Declaration of Independence in 1948 cited UN Resolution 181 of 1947 - which called for the creation of a Jewish state, an Arab state, and a separate City of Jerusalem - as a primary legal basis for its establishment. And the Palestinian Declaration of Independence of 1988 similarly noted that this same Resolution 181 "partitioned Palestine into two states, one Arab, one Jewish," and therefore "still provides those conditions of international legitimacy that ensure the right of the Palestinian Arab people to sovereignty."
Yet there are a number of valid reasons why Palestinians find this new Israeli demand both puzzling and difficult to accept.
First, the demand is unique since nation-states define themselves. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) formally recognized Israel in 1993, although Israel still has yet to recognize Palestine. Palestinians therefore expect Israel's citizens to define their own state.
Palestinians also note that this demand appears unique to them. Recognition of Israel's 'Jewish character' has not been asked of the United States or any of the other countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations, including Egypt and Jordan. Moreover, the partition resolution aside, UN Resolution 273 of 1949, admitting Israel as a member state, makes no mention of Israel as a 'Jewish state.' Neither in the May 5, 1949 debate on Israel's application for UN membership did its representative, Abba Eban, describe or define Israel as a 'Jewish state.'
Palestinians, and the rest of the world including the United States, believed that the issue of recognition on the Palestinian side had been satisfied with the unrequited 1993 Palestinian recognition of Israel. But at the 2007 Annapolis Meeting, this new issue suddenly emerged. Neither the Palestinian nor the American delegations took it seriously, and it seemed to be dropped.
But since the reelection of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009, he has insisted this is not only a major issue, but the central one. Palestinians and others wonder why, in that case, it was never even mentioned until 2007.
Beyond lingering suspicions of a deliberate effort to delay or sabotage negotiations, Palestinians have three key problems with this new demand.
First, they're not sure what it is they're being asked to recognize, because Israel itself does not define what being a "Jewish state" actually means. There are different and competing definitions in various aspects of Israeli law and administrative practice, but no single, clear definition.
Last year Knesset members tried to define Israel's 'Jewish character' but no consensus was possible. Is this an ethnic designation? A religious one? Reflective simply of the current majority?
Or is it a metaphysical and trans-historical claim of permanent sovereignty over the land - not for the current Jewish Israeli majority and other citizens of Israel - but for "the Jewish people" the world over and for all time, but without defining who, precisely, is included and excluded from that 'people?'
After all, the age-old question of 'Who is a Jew' remains hotly contested, and Israeli definitions of who qualifies as a Jew for immigration purposes differs from those for other administrative purposes.
Second, Palestinians are concerned this might prejudice a key final status issue: refugees. Palestinians worry Israel is trying, in effect, to get them to concede on the refugee question outside of a broader final status package covering all issues in which there will be a series of trade-offs by both sides. The most politically difficult of these on the Palestinian side will involve refugees, and on the Israeli side Jerusalem. Not only must Palestinians do their best in negotiations for the refugees, they also need to retain leverage on other issues such as Jerusalem.
Third, approximately 20 percent of the citizens of Israel are not Jewish, and the overwhelming bulk of them are Palestinian Muslims and Christians. The PLO is naturally loath to agree to anything that might be interpreted as endorsing or condoning their second-class citizenship and the discrimination they already face in terms of housing, social services, education and social benefits, or any additional restrictions they may face in the future.
Many Israelis and their allies see Palestinian recognition of Israel as a 'Jewish state' to be a very straightforward matter that simply indicates their willingness to end the conflict once and for all. But Palestinians see it as involving profoundly costly, premature, and perhaps unacceptable, concessions, lacking any straightforward definitions by the Israelis who are demanding it.
If Israel insists on some language about its 'Jewish character' to validate Jewish history and to emphasize a full end-of-claims, these points can and should be dealt with in a final status agreement. But such an agreement must also recognize and guarantee the rights of non-Jewish citizens of Israel. As for the 'Who is a Jew' debate, this is best left to the Jewish people.
The full legal and political implications of Israel's status as a 'Jewish state' can be clearly defined in an agreement that ends the conflict and resolves all claims. For Palestinians to agree to any such language, it must be clearly defined. It is only fair to define, clearly and forthrightly, what the term 'Jewish state' means before asking the Palestinians to accept it.
Ziad J. Asali is President of the American Task Force on Palestine.