Why the Palestinians Shouldn’t Have to Recognize Israel as a Jewish State

There was a time not too long ago when I believed that requiring the Palestinians to not only recognize Israel’s right to exist, but also their right to exist as a Jewish state, was not that big of a deal and not unreasonable, given all that was at stake. However, after hearing the perspective of many [liberal and moderate] Israeli Jews, Palestinians and some [liberal] foreign policy wonks, I’ve changed my mind. I now believe it is an unreasonable pre-condition meant to undermine peace talks and place the onus of their failure squarely on the shoulders of the Palestinians (ie. “if only the Palestinians would recognize Israel, we could have peace). This became more apparent to me as I listened to the legions of pundits, journalists and politicians claim, disingenuously, after Benjamin Netanyahu’s unbelievable speech before both Congress and AIPAC, that Israel is the aggrieved party because the Palestinians refuse to recognize their right to exist. This is just false.

Here is a quote from Bibi’s AIPAC speech and which was dutifully repeated without question by the media, the Lobby, the Obama administration, many in the Jewish community, Congress and pretty much everyone else:

This conflict has raged for nearly a century because the Palestinians refuse to end it,” Netanyahu said. “They refuse to accept the Jewish state. This is what the conflict has always been about. But we can only make peace with the Palestinians if they’re prepared to make peace with the Jewish state.”

Bibi is intentionally misleading people. Unfortunately, no one in the media felt it necessary to correct the historical record.

As Thain pointed out in the comment section of another post, the Palestinian Authority has most certainly recognized not only Israel’s right to exist, but their right to do so in peace and security:

Fayyad reminded the audience that, under the Oslo accords, “we recognized Israel’s existence. Actually, we did more than just recognize Israel’s existence back in 1993″:

It was a lot more profound than just recognizing Israel’s existence. We had recognized then Israel’s “right to exist in peace and security.” It’s a very high form of recognition, if you will. Mutual recognition among nations is typically not that way. Countries recognize each other, members of the United Nations, and life goes on. In this particular case, we Palestinians, through the PLO, acting on behalf of all Palestinian people, in the occupied Palestinian territory and everywhere, recognized Israel’s right to exist in peace and security.

In passing, let me tell you what we got in return at the time. You’d think that in return for this recognition, we’d have gotten recognition on the part of Israel, the government of Israel, of our right to statehood, as Palestinian people. I think it’s only logical to think that way. That wasn’t the case. If you actually review the so-called declaration…of mutual recognition, you will find that actually, on the Israeli side, it involved Israel recognizing the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, that’s all. That is all. You recognize a country’s right to exist in peace and security, and the way that country chooses to define itself as a product of that country’s own internal political processes, I mean, that’s more than any country can be expected — we’re not even yet a country, and we’re not promised to be one in the context of that declaration — more than any country can be expected to offer.”

[emphasis added]

He brings up a good point- the question of whether some Israeli government officials and some of their more extreme supporters in the U.S. truly recognize Palestine’s right to exist is arguable at best. Benjamin Netanyahu has spent his entire political career bragging that there would never be a sovereign Palestine on his watch.

Over at the Middle East Channel at ForeignPolicy.com, there is an excellent article that outlines why the requirement that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people is not only a relatively new requirement that Israel and the U.S. have demanded, but an unfair one that is required of no other sovereign country:

Palestinian recognition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people has become a central Israeli demand that is being portrayed as an existential concomitant of Israel’s perceived security needs. Despite Israeli claims to the contrary, this is indeed a relatively recent demand, one that was not raised in previous rounds of negotiations either with the Palestinians nor with any other Arab party before 2008.

Be that as it may, it has not only been adopted by the current Israeli government but has secured growing support abroad from both Western governments and pro-Israeli and Jewish circles in the Diaspora, and was formally endorsed by President Barack Obama as a prerequisite for peace on May 19.

Meanwhile, the official PA/PLO position is that how Israel defines itself is not a Palestinian concern, and that the Palestinians cannot accede to this demand on two basic grounds: First, because it prejudices the political and civic rights of Israel’s Arab citizens comprising 20 percent of the population whose second-class status would be consolidated by dint of recognition of the “Jewishness ” of the state;

Given Israel’s oft-mentioned unique security concerns, one would think that they would be very content to end the conflict with the Palestinians and sign peace treaties with their Arab neighbors- this would be based on the explicit recognition of the state of Israel. Israel and the U.S. did not require that Jordan or Egypt recognize Israel as a Jewish state prior to their signing peace treaties with Israel. Why not? Because it didn’t matter for reasons of security. All that mattered was that Egypt and Jordan recognize Israel and not go to war. However, the situation with the Palestinians is much different- Israel currently holds all the cards vis-a-vie the Palestinians- they continue to expand their settlements and expropriate the Palestinians’ natural resources, etc. Thus, Netanyahu doesn’t see peace as desirable or good because he would have to give up too much.

Back to the above article- the author raises some interesting points about how the requirement that Israel be formally recognized as a Jewish state means, in effect, that the world’s Jews have a God-given right to Greater Israel, with the Palestinians as mere trespassers, relegated to second class status:

First, and perhaps most importantly, if Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, then the lands that it occupies today — and perhaps more as there are as yet no borders to this homeland — belong to this people by way of right. But if these lands rightfully comprise the Jewish homeland then the Arab presence there becomes historically aberrant and contingent; the Palestinians effectively become historic interlopers and trespassers — a transient presence on someone else’s national soil.

This is not a moot or exaggerated point. It touches on the very core of the conflict and its genesis. Indeed, it is the heart of the Zionist claim to Palestine: Palestine belongs to the Jews and their right to the land is antecedent and superior to that of the Arabs — this is what Zionism is about and what justifies both the Jewish return to the land and the dispossession of its Arab inhabitants.

But this is not the Palestinian Arab narrative, nor can it be. We do not believe that the historical Jewish presence and connection to the land entail a superior claim to it. This we believe is our homeland established over one-and-half thousand years of continuous Arab-Muslim presence, and that we were eventually only dispossessed of it by superior force and colonial machination. For us to adopt the Zionist narrative would mean that the homes that our forefathers built, the land that they tilled for centuries, and the sanctuaries they built and prayed at were not really ours at all and that our defense of them was morally flawed and wrongful: we had no right to any of these to begin with.

The demand for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people has yet another dimension. It places the moral burden of the conflict on the Palestinians, and consequently, not only exonerates Israel from the dubious moral circumstances of its birth but makes the Palestinians the historical transgressors; by refusing to accept the Jewish claim to the land we would be to blame for what has befallen us. By this token, the entire conflict should and could have been averted; we should have simply have handed the land “back” to its rightful owners from the very start. It is Arab rejection that caused the conflict and not the Zionist transgression against Arab land and rights. This is of course precisely why this Israeli government and its most ardent Zionist supports want to wrest this recognition from the Palestinians as it would absolve Israel of its “original sin” and delegitimize the Palestinian version of their own history.

Furthermore, this gives Israel the right to demand a measure of retributive justice; the Palestinians started the conflict and they should pay for their “sins”. The refugees should pay for their dispossession and the Palestinians should lose their claim to equality and equivalence in any political settlement premised on supposedly painful or generous Israeli concessions. The putative Palestinian state should not be allowed what Israel allows itself, whether this is the right to self-defense or the right to be free from foreign (Israeli) military or civilian presence on its soil. [emphasis added]

He makes an interesting argument and I find it persuasive. Keep in mind that most Americans believe that the primary problem in this conflict is the Palestinians refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist. The media perpetuates this false narrative by a) never informing people that the PLO/PA did in fact recognize Israel’s right to exist as part of Oslo and b) conflating the issue of the recognition of Israel as a nation with the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. There is a difference, but the media almost universally refuses to make the distinction.

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About Stacy

Attorney, Publisher, Foreign Policy wonk

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4 Comments on “Why the Palestinians Shouldn’t Have to Recognize Israel as a Jewish State”

  1. Tovah Says:

    Excellent write-up. You find good articles.

    I’m conflicted about this but the more Bibi presses it as a condition for talks the more suspicious I am. The article you highlight makes some good points that I never thought of. You are right that the media reports that the Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state which is misleading because what they have done is recognize Israel in general.


  2. thainjacobs Says:

    Great post. I agree with Tovah, he brings up some stuff I hadn’t really thought about.

    It’s too bad the media sucks or else there could be a real dialogue about this issue. Instead all we get is people running around screaming “but they won’t recognize Israel’s right to exist!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

    Any time I see an article in the MSM where it says they haven’t recognized Israel I am going to leave a comment and also email the journalist/author.


  3. Stacy Says:

    Yes, he does bring up some good points. I’ve become really disillusioned with this administration- I never liked Obama but I thought he understood that re-aligning relations with the Muslim world and being more of an honest broker was a national security issue but they don’t seem to get that or if they do they’d rather play politics with the Lobby.

    Why hasn’t one single person in the MSM said to Obama, Clinton, or anyone else in the administration “given the Palestinians already recognized Israel’s right to exist, why move the goal posts? And why weren’t Egypt and Jordan required to do the same?”

    It’s just one more hurdle we’ve thrown up in front of the process to appease the Lobby, among other groups.



  1. Mideast Quartet Update: The REAL Reason They Didn’t Issue a Statement | US FoPo & the Middle East - July 12, 2011

    […] in my opinion, the Palestinians shouldn’t have to formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state here. And just to be clear, this isn’t about the Palestinians (the PA/Fatah) not recognizing […]

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