In his speech before the U.S. Congress last May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posed a serious challenge to the Palestinian Authority: If the PA would just say, “We recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” this would be sufficient to end the conflict. Israel, said Netanyahu, would be the first to vote for Palestinian statehood in the United Nations. The response of PA Prime Minister Dr. Salam Fayyad, in a recent interview with Haaretz, was that, “Israel’s character is its own business. It is not up to the Palestinians to define it.”
That is an unconvincing response. If recognition is just a technical point, why not say the seven requested words in order to win the vote in the United Nations? The Palestine Liberation Organization certainly understands the significance of Netanyahu’s offer, as it adopted a concept similar to that of the Jewish state in the Palestinian Declaration of Independence in 1988, which proclaims: “The State of Palestine is the state of Palestinians wherever they may be.” Moreover, how can it be explained that the PLO recognizes the right of Israel to exist and the PA’s security apparatus works in full coordination with Israel – but they are not prepared to say these seven words?
Israel’s Declaration of Independence of 1948 expressed the meaning of the “Jewish state.” It opens by noting: “Eretz Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people,” and it continues by recounting the history and national memory of the Jewish people and their exclusive ownership of the state: “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate … in their own sovereign state.”
The cornerstone of the Jewish state is the Law of Return, as the Supreme Court has noted. This is why Palestinian refugees have no right to return to Israel, whereas any Jew in the world, together with any non-Jewish members of his or her immediate family, has the right to immigrate to Israel. In stark contrast, Israeli law prohibits Israeli-Arab citizens from living within the Green Line with their Palestinian spouses, if the latter are residents of the West Bank or Gaza.
For the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is to declare their surrender, meaning, to waive their group dignity by negating their historical narrative and national identity. This recognition would affirm that since the rebirth of Israel is a “natural” and exclusive right, the first revolt in “our” history as Palestinians – against the British Mandate in the 1930s for encouraging Jewish immigration, as well as our resistance to Israel’s establishment in 1948 – were mistakes. Thus, the Nakba is “our” fault only.
By this recognition, we would accept the rationale of the Law of Return, and as a result, we would waive our right to return, even in principle. Further, since the historical masters of the land possess rights a priori, the confiscation of Palestinian land and its designation as “absentee property” makes sense, even when members of this group are “present absentees” in Israel. Also, because the revival of Hebrew expresses the rebirth of the nation, it should be the sole official language of this land and we would also accept the names of our villages and sites being changed from Arabic to Hebrew.
With this recognition, the Palestinian citizens of the state in Nazareth and Haifa, who remained in their homes in 1948, cannot demand a “state for all of its citizens” and full equality because they do not enjoy the same original rights as Jews.
Not recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is not the same as denying the right of self-determination of Israeli Jews. The exercise of self-determination of any people is embodied mainly by their right to govern as a national group. Self-determination can be exercised without exclusion or discrimination, including in cases of multinational or multi-linguistic groups such as in Canada, Belgium, Switzerland or South Africa.
This explains why Palestinian citizens of Israel who recognize the right of Israel to exist and the right of self-determination of Israeli Jews, as it is expressed in the Arab “Future Vision” documents of 2006 and 2007, can still strongly resist the exclusiveness embodied in the definition of Israel as a Jewish state.
The timing of Netanyahu’s offer is very relevant: It comes at one of the moments of greatest defeat in Palestinian history. Israel has succeeded, as political scientist Meron Benvenisti says, in fragmenting the Palestinians to pieces – the refugees, the Green Line, Gaza, West Bank and Jerusalem. Walls and checkpoints divide them. Each piece lives under different laws and different leaders. In addition to this weakness, the PA’s security forces continue to obey Israel’s orders. For Netanyahu’s government, this is the best time to ask the Palestinians to officially recognize the Zionist narrative.
This notion of surrender allows us to understand how Netanyahu can suggest that the Palestinians are “guilty” for all of their tragedies. He is right about one thing: Just as surrender ends a war, such recognition by the PLO would end the conflict. But he will have a hard time finding an Arab partner who will accept such an offer during this time of the Arab Spring, which is all about the right to dignity.
Hassan Jabareen is a lawyer and the founder and general director of Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.