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On Israel’s demand to be recognised as a ‘Jewish State’

While analyses have abounded about the Middle East peace process, including details of the “secret” talks and evaluations of the positions of the negotiating parties, prominent Israeli writers have intensified their efforts to focus on “Israel’s imminent existential threat” with much fanfare.


Despite the fact that such writers are not officially members of the Israeli government, and their articles may seem unrelated to one another, their works are all in line and consistent with the official position of the Israeli government, which has added the recognition of Israel as a Jewish State as the sine qua non to resolving the “conflict” with the Palestinians.

These writers have highlighted an “existential” threat to the Jewish identity of not only the State of Israel, but also Jerusalem, calling on the Israeli government to embrace policies and measures to preserve this identity and sustain the Jewish majority.

In his article “Making the Jewish State a ‘Jewish State’,” Lahav Harkov tries to draw attention to the importance of passing bills and instituting policies that ensure the Jewishness of Israel. However, Harkov concedes the difficulty of doing so while also being democratic, especially with the presence of Muslim and Christian Arab Israeli citizens, who comprise nearly 20 per cent of the Israeli population.

Similarly, writing in Al-Monitor in September 2013, Einat Wilf discusses the domestic debate about how the State of Israel cannot reconcile the term “Jewish” while also being “democratic”. Better still, Michael B. Oren wrote four years ago in Commentary magazine that, “…Israel will have to decide between being a Jewish State and a democratic state. If it chooses democracy, then Israel as a Jewish State will cease to exist.”

Oren suggests that there are seven “existential threats” to the State of Israel, identifying Arab demographics in particular. When talking about Jerusalem, Oren warns that Israel is in danger of losing Jerusalem as it no longer boasts a “Zionist majority”. However, he uses statistics to back his argument that are misleading.

First and foremost, he uses the term “Zionist majority” rather than “Jewish” or “Israeli”. In fact, there is an obvious difference between these terms, especially when put in the context of the wider conflict. Second, Oren says that “out of a total population of 800,000, there are 272,000 Arabs and 200,000 Haredim–ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not generally identify with the Zionist state.” Here, Oren places ultra-Orthodox Jews in the same category as Arabs, but had he classified Arabs (Christians and Muslims) alone compared to the total sum of resident Jews in Jerusalem, he would have had to recognise that Jews are a majority. I tend to see Oren’s “existential threats” as nothing but challenges facing Israel’s identity, rather than threats facing its existence.

Despite some reservations, one of the most rational articles on this topic is written by Alon Ben-Meir, titled “The Jewish State of Israel”. Ben-Meir also highlights the demographic threat, yet he proposes a number of possible solutions, including the urgency of resolving the conflict with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution.

According to him, such a solution would remove Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip from the demographic equation that Israel faces, as well as end the occupation and the expansion of settlements, as this “runs contrary to the need to establish a Palestinian state in order to prevent the creation of a de facto one state, which will obliterate Israel’s Jewish national identity.”

On the whole, such articles cannot be construed as anything but a means to justify a number of Israeli policies that aim at preserving the Jewish identity of Israel. While Western public opinion may find in these policies and measures “racism”, understanding the rational motivation for them is crucial at this moment. For example, another explanation for these articles to appear right now would be as a prelude to the looming failure of the negotiations, due to stiff Israeli positions concerning the city of Jerusalem and its intransigent stance on the recognition of Israel as a Jewish State.

At this juncture, we should remind ourselves that Theodor Herzl was the first one to use the term “Jewish State” back in 1896, thus giving birth to the Zionist movement. In 1917, the Balfour Declaration called for the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948 subsequently referred to Israel as a Jewish State.

However it is also important to note that since its establishment in 1948 until today, Israel has never ratified a constitution. What defines its national goals and values is a collection of eleven basic laws, none of which defines Israel “as a Jewish State”. Moreover, the 160 countries that officially recognise Israel neither acknowledged its Jewish nature nor were required to do so. In the peace treaties between Israel and the two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan, there is no reference to Israel’s so-called Jewish character. Indeed the main rationale for Israel’s unheralded demand is clear: the association of Israel as a Jewish State means the waiver of any right of return for the Palestinian refugees.

Tellingly, Netanyahu’s demand that the recognition of Israel as a “Jewish State” be a precondition to settling the conflict with the Palestinians is actually based on two rationales. First, as mentioned above, such recognition would, without a doubt, erase the right of return of the Palestinian refugees, and hence abolish one significant element of the final status issues for negotiations. In other words, if Israel is to be recognised as Jewish State, Muslim and Christian refugees would give up their right of self-determination in Palestine and would become ineligible to return to their homes, from which they were uprooted decades ago. It is unequivocal that Netanyahu’s subtle demand for recognition is in reality an effort to relinquish a cornerstone element in the conflict, and by default, squander any chance of achieving a peace agreement, through dictating the outcome of the final status issues outside the negotiations table. Second, this recognition would prepare the grounds for a long-awaited transfer plan, which intends to transfer as many Christian and Muslim Arab citizens as possible from Israel in order to preserve Israeli’s Jewish majority.

According to the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, Israel admits to revoking the residency rights of one quarter of a million Palestinians since 1967. Ido Blum, who heads the legal team for HaMoked, an Israeli human rights organisation, said that while the policy of revoking residency no longer applies to the West Bank and Gaza, it is still being implemented in East Jerusalem. Palestinians unable to provide documents including utility bills or school enrolment forms indicating that Jerusalem is their “centre of life” risk losing their permit to stay in Jerusalem. More so, in her article “Quiet transfer”, Elodie Guego, a lawyer specializing in human rights, describes the policies to revoke the residency permits of Palestinian Jerusalemites and to Judaise the city “as ethnic cleansing”.

On his part, Chief Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat explained: “when the Palestinians recognised Israel, they recognized the composition of the state”. He also said “for the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish State would adversely impact the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel.” It is indisputable that recognition of Israel as a Jewish State would imply consent to abandoning Palestinian land, real estate and other property belonging to Palestinians in Israel.

In this respect, Ben-Meir lambasted the absurdity of Netanyahu “linking peace with the Palestinians to their recognition of Israel as a Jewish State,” adding: “Recognizing Israel as a Jewish State by the Palestinians, as demanded by Netanyahu, is of no value or consequence, not any more than the four countries identified by their religious majority: the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.” Yair Lapid, Netanyahu’s Finance Minister, announced in October that he too opposes the demand set by Netanyahu that Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish State be a condition for any future peace deal.

To support the policy, some Israeli officials evoke United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 in November 1947, known as the UN Partition Plan, which was a proposal to replace the British Mandate for Palestine with “independent Arab and Jewish States”. The text of the resolution talked about two states, one “Jewish” and one “Arab”, where the latter shall take 43 per cent of the total land of historical Palestine and the “Jewish State” take control 56 per cent.

However, the current Israeli leadership is insisting that the Palestinians cannot negotiate for more than 22 per cent of historical Palestine, while at the same time, they have to recognise Israel as a Jewish State. But whereas the partition plan put a “Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem” administered by the United Nations, Israel utterly is refusing this as it is aiming to be the sole owner of the holy city of Jerusalem. So to speak, it is bizarre to take one part of the partition plan (a Jewish State) and disregard the rest of its components.

It is self evident that with a leadership not willing to take bold steps and cede untenable demands; a leadership that adopts only gunboat diplomacy in the starkest terms, undermining the importance of achieving peace and prevaricating its responsibilities towards it – using the Iranian nuclear file – uncertainty will linger, untoward outcomes will follow and any chances for the current tenuous peace talks will be susceptible to utter failure.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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