One of the toughest issues currently bedeviling Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. “Just as Israel is prepared to recognize a Palestinian state, the Palestinians must be prepared to recognize a Jewish state,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday in his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual conference. “In recognizing the Jewish state you would finally make clear that you are truly prepared to end the conflict. So recognize the Jewish state, no excuses, no delays. It is time.”
While the issue is not an entirely new one — the 1947 United Nations partition of Palestine created “Arab and Jewish states,” and the 2003 Geneva Accord affirmed “the recognition of the right of the Jewish people to statehood and the recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to statehood, without prejudice to the equal rights of the Parties’ respective citizens” — it’s safe to say Netanyahu has elevated the issue to a level of importance that it didn’t have before.
Since Netanyahu first brought it up in his 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University, where he voiced support for the two-state solution for the first time (while also offering a number of other potentially deal-breaking conditions), the Palestinians have rejected it on various grounds, claiming that it would prejudice the rights of Palestinians living in Israel, or that it is an attempt to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue through a side-door.
But past Palestinian views on this question indicate that the issue is not an insurmountable one.
Israeli journalist Ari Shavit recently unearthed a 2004 interview with Yassir Arafat, in which the late PLO Chairman and Palestinian Authority President was asked, “You understand that Israel has to keep being a Jewish state?” Arafat responded, “Definitely.”
According to Shavit, this shows that Arafat “recognized Israel as a Jewish state.” But reading the original interview, it doesn’t appear that this is quite the case, at least not in the sense that Netanyahu seems to mean it. Arafat is recognizing an existing fact — Israel is a Jewish majority state — and affirming that he would agree to a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue that did not attempt to change that fact through the large-scale return of Palestinian refugees.
A similar understanding is also reflected in past polling from the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Survey and Policy Research. In Ramallah last month, I spoke with PCSPR’s director, Khalil Shikaki, who cited a June 2003 poll of Palestinians, in which “A majority of 52% agree[d] and 46% disagree[d] with the proposal calling for mutual recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and Palestine as the state of the Palestinian people after the establishment of a Palestinian state and the settlement of all issues of the conflict.”
Asked the same question in June 2013, however, a majority of 56 percent disagreed and just 41 percent agreed.
Looking at the data, Shikaki said, “My guess is that Palestinians were in favor as long as the question was about a recognition of the fact, after a peace agreement, that Israel has a Jewish majority.” Support dropped, Shikaki said, “When Netanyahu succeeded in changing the definition to one that deals with narratives and potential discrimination by the majority of Jews against the Israeli Arab minority, through various legislation proposed at that time by right wing parties.”
In Netanyahu’s version, writes Gershom Gorenberg, “Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state means accepting confirming an Israeli narrative of ‘3,800 years’ of history,” which is as much of a non-starter for the Palestinians as adoption of the Nakba narrative is for the Israelis. The question now is whether the issue can be walked back, and the sides can accept a more modest acknowledgement of the other’s national existence than the more fulsome and provocative demand being made by Netanyahu.