Israel does not recognise itself as a state – so what is being demanded of Palestinians?

January 8, 2014
Sarah Benton

Israeli Arabs and Bedouin protest outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

From Almost half Israeli Arabs believe Palestine will eventually replace Israel, Times of Israel, June 2013

A majority of Israeli Arabs feel they would be justified in launching an intifada, or uprising, if their situation did not improve, according to a survey conducted by Haifa University sociologist Sammy Smooha. At the same time, more than half reconcile themselves to living in a state with an Israeli-Hebrew culture.

The extensive survey, called the 2012 Index of Arab-Jewish Relations in Israel, shows that compared to the first survey in 2003, Arab Israelis feel increasingly disconnected from and hostile to the state, though they desire greater integration. Jews, on the other hand, are slightly more open to the concerns of their Arab neighbours. Photo by Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

The Jewish state in question

By Bernard Avishai, blog, New Yorker
January 02, 2014

Jodi Rudoren writes in today’s Times [see below] that the great sticking point for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” or as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”—something along these lines. Rudoren asks, “Can Israel preserve its identity as a Jewish democratic state while also providing equal rights and opportunities to citizens of other faiths and backgrounds? With a largely secular population, who interprets Jewish law and custom for public institutions and public spaces? Is Judaism a religion, an ethnicity or both?”

Netanyahu’s demand has at least three layers to it. The first is symbolic, without practical significance—understandable, but superfluous. The second is partly symbolic, but is meant to have future practical significance; it is contentious but resolvable. The third, however, is legal: it has great practical significance, and is, for any Palestinian or, for that matter, Israeli democrat, deplorable. We are no longer debating resolutions at fin-de-siècle Zionist congresses. Making laws requires settled definitions, and what’s being settled in Israel is increasingly dangerous. Netanyahu’s demand is a symptom of the disease that presents itself as the cure.

On the first, symbolic point: Israel is obviously the state of the Jewish people, in the sense that vanguard Jewish groups in Eastern Europe dreamed of a Hebrew revolution, which launched the Zionist colonial project, which engendered a Jewish national home in Mandate Palestine, which earned international backing to organize a state after the Holocaust—a state that became a place of refuge for Jews from Europe and Arab countries—that is, a state with a large Jewish majority whose binding tie (to bring things back to Zionism’s DNA) is the spoken Hebrew language.

When Palestinians say they recognize Israel, they are implicitly recognizing this reality; they are acknowledging the name of a communal desire. The state is not called Ishmael, after all.

At the most visceral level, when we Israelis insist that Israel be recognized as Jewish, we mean that we want this narrative recognized, the same way in which Palestinians implicitly want acknowledgement of their particular formative sufferings at the hands of Zionism when they say “Palestinians” rather than “southern Syrians.” To say, as Yair Lapid, Israel’s Minister of Finance, does, that he doesn’t care what Palestinians think is rude. When Palestinian spokespeople speak to Israeli reporters in Hebrew, they are recognizing Israel in the most poignant possible way. To ask for more is tactless.

That leads to the second, partly symbolic, partly practical aspect. Why does Netanyahu insist that this recognition is not enough? Because, he claims, in any negotiation with the Palestinians, it must be understood in advance that there can be no “right of return” for Palestinians to Israel—and, therefore, accepting this formulation, “the state of the Jewish people” signifies a joint decision to preclude a flood of Palestinian refugees into Israel’s borders and onto its electoral rolls.

But Netanyahu’s claim is false, and puts a stumbling block where a pathway needs to be cleared. You can certainly find a formulation for the refugees that does not ruin Israel’s Jewish/Hebrew character—one that preserves the Palestinian “right of return” as a seminal piece of the Palestinians’ narrative, the name of their desire. It might say, for example, that refugees have a right of return to their homes, but that the forms of compensation, the number of returnees, etc., must be agreeable to Israel, and that, in any case, the majority will exercise that right by returning to a future Palestinian state.

The contradiction between “the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state” and “the right of return of Palestinians” may sound intractable. In fact, it was pretty much resolved at Taba, in January, 2001. Why resort to distracting principles when a little useful ambiguity will do?

Unfortunately, however, Netanyahu cannot, or will not, simply leave things there. For the phrase “Jewish state” also has a third meaning, with legal ramifications dear to the heart of Israeli rightists (including old Labor Zionists in love with the saga of the settler state); laws that derive from the historical application (some would say misapplication) of neo-Zionist ideas and Ben Gurion’s rash compromises with rabbinical forces over two generations ago; laws that have left Israel a seriously compromised democracy.

This is not the place to go into all of them. Suffice it to say that this Jewish state allocates public land (over ninety per cent of it) almost exclusively to certified Jews, creates immigration laws to bestow citizenship on certified Jews, empowers the Jewish Agency to advance the well-being of certified Jews, lacks civil marriage and appoints rabbis to marry certified Jews only to one another, founded an Orthodox educational system to produce certified Jews (more than half of Jewish first-graders in Jerusalem attend these), assumes custodianship of a sacred capital for the world’s certified Jews—indeed, this Jewish state presumes to certify Jews in the first place. We are not now talking about a state that recognizes the Passover holiday or provides refuge for victims of anti-Semitic persecution (as the U.S. and many other Western democracies do, by the way). In Israel, having J-positive blood is a serious material advantage.

Such a state must be anathema to Palestinian leaders, who cannot but notice that a fifth (soon, a quarter) of Israeli citizens are Palestinian in origin, and thus are materially, legally disadvantaged by birth: they can recognize Israel but cannot possibly accept this state. But then, it is anathema also to Israeli Jews with ordinary democratic instincts, irrespective of how Palestinians feel about it.

Likud politicians warn that Israelis must fight to preserve a Jewish state in the face of claims that Israel should be a state of its citizens. But a democratic state, by definition, is a state of its citizens. It can only be a state of its citizens. Which is not to say that a state of its citizens cannot have a Jewish character. It can be a distinctive republic—a Hebrew republic, as I’ve called it—whose citizens speak a dominant language inflected by Jewish nuances, poetic allusions to classical Jewish texts and liturgy, and the like. This is quite different from a state that purports to represent, or embody privileges in law for, members of a notional world people.

Which brings us to the last matter Rudoren deals with, the Israeli Supreme Court’s recent, weird decision to reject a petition by various distinguished Israelis to recognize “Israeli” as a nationality. Israel’s Registry of Populations recognizes over a hundred nationalities, from Druze to Circassian, and recognizes “Jews.” But “Israeli” is not among Israel’s official nationalities. (Israelis from Palestinian families are “Arabs.”) In effect, the court is telling Israeli citizens that naturalization to a distinctly Israeli nation, if not impossible, is beside the point. It underlines how warped by theocracy the state has become in the absence of a democratic constitution, and in the presence of an occupation justified by messianic notions of peoplehood.

The court is implying, sadly, that democracy is just the tyranny of the Jewish majority. Rather than disturb the status quo, it is surrendering to the pre-Zionist rabbinic idea (which American Jews vaguely take for granted) that “Jewish” is a religious sentiment and biological fact. One does not need much political imagination to see how liberal Israeli Arabs who have mastered modern Hebrew—unlike “returning” Jews from Brookline or Teaneck—would regard this decision. It is a repudiation of the very possibility of a Hebrew civil space that they might embrace, however tentatively. What would a Jew born in Montreal say if the courts decided that to be a Quebecois with full rights—including, as in Israel, the right to acquire most land—he had to be a descendant of a family whose lineage was documented by the St. Jean-Baptiste Society, or Catholic according to the city’s Archbishop?

Netanyahu wants Israel recognized as a Jewish state. Strangely, Israel is perhaps the only country in the world that doesn’t recognize itself.

Bernard Avishai is the author of “The Tragedy of Zionism” and “The Hebrew Republic.” He is a visiting professor of government at Dartmouth College and an adjunct professor of business at the Hebrew University. His most recent book, “Promiscuous: Portnoy’s Complaint and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness,” is newly out in paperback.

Sticking Point in Peace Talks: Recognition of a Jewish State

By Jodi Rudoren, NY Times
January 01, 2014

JERUSALEM — As Middle East peace talks churn on, Israel has catapulted to the fore an issue that may be even more intractable than old ones like security and settlements: a demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made such recognition the pillar of his public statements in recent weeks, calling it “the real key to peace,” “the minimal requirement” and “an essential condition.” Israeli, American and Palestinian officials all say it has become a core issue in the negotiations that started last summer.

But Mr. Netanyahu’s argument that this single issue underpins all others is exactly what makes it unacceptable to Palestinians. At its heart, it is a dispute over a historical narrative that each side sees as fundamental to its existence.

Critics skeptical of Mr. Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution to the long-running conflict say that recognition of a Jewish state is a poison pill that he is raising only to scuttle the talks. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has repeatedly said that the Palestinians will never agree to it, most recently in a letter to President Obama last month.

The Palestinians cite both pragmatic and philosophical reasons: They contend that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would disenfranchise its 1.6 million Arab citizens, undercut the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees and, most important, require a psychological rewriting of the story they hold dear about their longtime presence in the land.

But Israeli leaders say that the refugee question can be resolved separately and that the status of Israel’s Arab minority can be protected. Without acceptance by the Palestinians that their neighbor is and will be, in Israel’s favored formulation, “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” Israelis argue that they can never be convinced that an agreement truly spells the end of the conflict.

“The core of this conflict has never been borders and settlements — it’s about one thing: the persistent refusal to accept the Jewish state in any border,” Mr. Netanyahu said last month in a video statement to the Saban Forum in Washington.

He added: “We recognize that in peace there will be a nation-state for the Palestinian people. Surely we’re entitled to expect them to do the same.”

The gulf between the two sides on the issue highlights a broader question critical to the outcome of the talks: whether a peace deal must reconcile conflicting versions of the past, or whether it can allow each version some legitimacy and focus on paving a path forward.

By emphasizing recognition, Mr. Netanyahu has also exposed several profound, unresolved questions: Can Israel preserve its identity as a Jewish democratic state while also providing equal rights and opportunities to citizens of other faiths and backgrounds? With a largely secular population, who interprets Jewish law and custom for public institutions and public spaces? Is Judaism a religion, an ethnicity or both?

“The founders of the state of Israel and the founders of Zionism felt that once we have a state, the puzzle of Jewish identity will be solved,” said Yedidia Z. Stern, a vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “They were totally wrong.”

“We don’t know what it means to be a Jewish state,” he said. “But does that mean we have to give it up? No way. I would leave. The reason I’m here is because this state is a Jewish state and not a neutral one.”

Many European countries, as well as Israel, grant a fast track for citizenship or otherwise give privileged status to people born elsewhere with shared roots. Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence asserted the “establishment of a Jewish state,” and Resolution 181 of the United Nations General Assembly, which in 1947 recommended the partition of Palestine, uses the term “Jewish state” 30 times. Mr. Obama and some of his predecessors have endorsed this definition.

But decades later, Israel is still grappling with what the term means. In October, its Supreme Court rejected a request by 21 citizens to be listed as “Israeli” in the national population registry, saying that to do so would belie Israel’s founding principle as a Jewish state for the Jewish people. Last year, an Arab justice on the court highlighted the conundrum when he declined to sing Israel’s national anthem, which speaks of the “yearning of the Jewish soul” to be “a free nation in our land.” Several bills pending in Parliament seek to define Israel more clearly as both Jewish and democratic, with varied emphasis on each.

Yair Lapid, a top minister in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, has distanced himself from the recognition demand, saying in an October interview, “My father did not come to Haifa from the Budapest ghetto in order to get recognition from” Mr. Abbas.

Palestinian leaders say that they have long recognized Israel’s right to exist, and that defining its character is not their responsibility, noting that Israel did not make similar requests of Egypt and Jordan when signing peace treaties with them decades ago.

“Don’t countries define themselves?” asked Hind Khoury, a former Palestinian minister and ambassador. “Why doesn’t Israel call itself at the U.N. whatever they want to call it — the Jewish whatever, Maccabean, whatever they want. Then the whole world will recognize it.”

“We will never recognize Israel the way they want, I mean genuinely, from our hearts,” she added. “Why for them to feel secure do we have to deny our most recent history?”

Polls by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research show that Palestinian support for such recognition has dropped over the past decade to a low of 40 percent last September, from a high of 65 percent.

“It seems the public differentiates between recognition of a fact (Israel has a Jewish majority) and recognition of a narrative (Israel has a right to a state for the Jewish people in historic Palestine),” Khalil Shikaki, the center’s director, said in an email. “Netanyahu’s conception requires the Palestinians to endorse a Zionist narrative, which they reject.”

But 73 percent of Israeli Jews supported Mr. Netanyahu’s demand, in 2010, that Palestinian recognition be a condition of an extension of a construction freeze in Israel’s West Bank settlements, according to the Israel Democracy Institute’s Peace Index.

While previous Israeli prime ministers, including Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, also declared recognition a key component of any final-status agreement, several people involved in the current negotiations said it has never been at the top of the agenda. Israel has also begun asking European nations to officially recognize it as a Jewish state, and Palestinian officials say the United States plans to include recognition as part of a framework agreement that Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to present to the two sides soon.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said in an interview that even setting aside the plight of the refugees and the rights of Israeli Arabs, recognition is a problem of principle. “It’s my narrative, it’s my history, it’s my story,” he said. “I’ve never heard in the history of mankind that others must participate in defining the nature of others. It’s really ridiculous.”

Shlomo Brom, the director of the program on Israeli-Palestinian relations at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said, “The problem is mutual distrust.”

“Because of their distrust of the Israeli side, they believe there is a hidden agenda behind this demand,” Mr. Brom said of the Palestinians. For Israelis, he said, “the crux of the matter is distrust in the willingness of the Palestinians to really recognize the right of the Jews to have their own state, even to recognize the linkage of the Jews to this piece of territory.”

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