The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel is explicit about what is meant by a Jewish state: a democracy for Jews from around the world seeking to escape historic persecution and looking to achieve national self-determination. The Declaration is also unwavering in its commitment to non-Jewish Israelis: The state will “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants and ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
These principles have guided modern Israel throughout its 66-year life, as evidenced by the achievements of its Arab citizens in becoming members of the Knesset, Supreme Court justices, diplomats, prominent businesspeople and, in the case of Mais Ali-Saleh, an observant Muslim woman, the class valedictorian of Israel’s top medical school.
Like other democracies with good intentions and official policies – think of the Canadian government’s Aboriginal file – Israel hasn’t been fully successful in achieving equality for its minorities. Nonetheless, it would be hard to challenge the claim that Israel has always demonstrated fairness like no other Middle Eastern nation. Think of how Copts are treated in Egypt, women in Saudi Arabia, or gays in Gaza and Iran, and you’ll understand what I mean.
So, why is recognition of Israel as a Jewish state such an important issue in peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA)?
One reason is that the basic paradigm of the 1993 Oslo accords held that Israelis and the Palestinians alike were prepared to recognize the legitimacy of each other’s national rights and aspirations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessors have often talked publicly about the desirability of a Palestinian state. Palestinian leaders have never said similar things about a Jewish state.
Indeed, the PA leadership has never abandoned the demand for the return of Palestinians to “Palestine,” including all of the State of Israel. Despite PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ moderate statements to the western press corps (and recently to Israeli students who visited him in Ramallah), that’s not his style when he talks to his own people. Instead, the Palestinian media broadcasts and publishes a never-ending stream of incitement against Jews and Israel, and a glorification of terrorists and terrorism. This theme is also part-and-parcel of the textbooks used in the PA school system. Those schoolbooks are replete with strong expressions of hatred towards Israel, the denial of its very existence as a state, and anti-Semitic diatribes.
PA spokespeople are routinely trotted out to deny any connection of the Jewish people to Israel, which they say is only a recent connection brought about through invasion of Palestinian land. The reason for all this, according to Ali Salim of the Gatestone Institute, is that Abbas really wants a Palestinian state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. He intends to bring this about by flooding the State of Israel with Muslim Palestinians as part of the so-called “return” of Palestinian refugees.
These arguments wouldn’t be as powerful, says Salim, if the PA recognized Israel as a “Jewish state.” That would assure Israelis that a Palestinian state bordering on Israel was the Palestinians’ final demand. Israelis also want certainty that the Palestinians will not try to use force or subterfuge to change the Jewish majority in Israel, and that no attempt will be made to force Israel to accept the return of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Palestinian refugees long settled in neighbouring countries. The end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in short, would mean mutual recognition.
Israeli leaders realize that, as part of the negotiating process, they will have to make concessions, including those relating to the administration of Jerusalem and the return of territories in Judea and Samaria. In fact, they have made important concessions to date, such as the release, as a goodwill gesture, of hundreds of the most brutal Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. The Palestinians, though, have made few concessions. The Palestinian leadership also knows that, at the end of any negotiating process, it will have to deal with the issue of Israel as a Jewish state, and this is something they are obviously not prepared to do.
As Yosef Kuperwasser and Shalom Lipner wrote in the November/December 2011 issue of Foreign Policy magazine, “The Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state stands at the root of the struggle and behind every so-called core issue, from determining borders to resolving the dispute over Palestinian refugees. Genuine reconciliation can be achieved, then, only once the Palestinians come to terms with Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.”