Hussein Ibish
The Daily Star (Opinion)
April 1, 2010 - 12:00am

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is insisting the Palestinians recognize Israel as, in his words, “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” a new and problematic demand that raises serious questions about Israel’s “Jewish character.”

The Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, began with the phrase: “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people …” This declaration introduces the concept of a Jewish national home into international relations in a most decisive manner.

On July 24, 1922, the Mandate for Palestine adopted by the Council of the League of Nations made the Zionist project a practical reality rather than a rhetorical position by holding that “the principal Allied Powers have also agreed that the Mandatory [power] should be responsible for putting [the Balfour Declaration] into effect.”

Guided by British policy and interests, the international community, such as it was at the time, seems to have regarded the Jewish national project in Palestine as legitimate and simply refrained from commenting on the Palestinian national project, unless to damn it by silence.

However, given the increasing assertion of Palestinian national identity and ambitions during the Mandatory period, this willful blindness could not extend itself into international decision-making about the end of the Mandate, as it had at its beginning. Beginning in the 1930s, several proposals, most notably the Peel Commission Report of 1937, suggested that Palestine be partitioned into Jewish and Arab states. A decade later, UN General Assembly Resolution 181 called for the establishment of “independent Arab and Jewish states and a special international regime for the city of Jerusalem.” This partition resolution, along with a unilateral declaration of “a Jewish state in Eretz Israel” by the Jewish leadership, is generally regarded as the birth certificate of the Israeli state.

A central irony is that if the 1947 partition resolution has served as the primary international birth certificate for Israel, it must do the same for the yet-to-be-established Palestinian state. In its “land for peace” formula, United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 and its numerous legal successors logically extend the fundamental attitude that seeks to balance Jewish and Arab rights in Palestine through two states.

Israel’s status as a Jewish state plainly rests primarily on the fact that it has a substantial Jewish majority of more than 75 percent. As a sovereign member state of the UN, Israel defines its own character, and the question of Israel’s Jewishness was never raised and is not reflected in its peace treaties with Egypt or Jordan.

The Palestinians have already recognized Israel as a Jewish state. This is most notable in PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s September 9, 1993, letter to Premier Yitzhak Rabin, in which he stated unambiguously, “The PLO recognizes the right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security.” Yet today, Palestinians are justifiably concerned that if they were to recognize Israel explicitly as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” (to use Netanyahu’s words), they might be perceived as endorsing measures that discriminate against the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Palestinians and many others also view this demand as an effort to pre-empt the refugee issue, a core permanent status negotiating issue.

Having asserted that Israel plainly is a Jewish state in one sense, one must assert that, in another sense, Israel at present is clearly not a Jewish state. The interpretation depends entirely on which version of Israel one is talking about. If we refer to Israel in its internationally recognized boundaries, then the state is indeed Jewish; but if we include the Occupied Territories, then it plainly is not.

Israel de jure, which excludes the Occupied Territories and assumes the creation of a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future, can certainly be considered both Jewish and democratic, although it still struggles to afford equality to a large non-Jewish minority. However, Israel de facto, on the other hand, includes the Occupied Territories, and assuming that no Palestinian state is created in the foreseeable future, one cannot consider this state either Jewish or democratic in any meaningful sense.

It could be seen as ironic, but it is also eminently logical, that a Jewish Israel requires an Arab Palestine alongside it in order to be itself and not something radically different.


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