Omar Rahman
The Guardian (Opinion)
September 22, 2010 - 12:00am

"The Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state." This is the mantra of the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been promoting this controversial idea as a condition of any peace deal.

But is such recognition valid, necessary, or even appropriate? This question will certainly remain at the heart of negotiations with an Israeli leadership that views such recognition as imperative. Although this is not the first time Israel has sought some form of validation, it varies from the past in stark and troubling ways.

In 1993 Israel's prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, called on the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat, to recognise Israel as a prerequisite for signing the Oslo agreement and commencing negotiations between the two peoples.

Arafat delivered this recognition in an open letter, which Rabin accepted as sufficient – and reciprocated in kind with recognition of the PLO. It was a watershed moment in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the beginning of diplomacy between the two sides.

Recognising Israel's right to exist in peace and security was an existential question, and a necessary preamble to real and sustained peace between Israel and its neighbours. In so doing, the Palestinians had accepted the partition of their historic land and the two-state solution.

Recognising Israel as a "Jewish" state, however, is a question of national character, and is not relevant to the Palestinians living as a foreign nation outside Israel. This is a domestic issue and it is up to the citizens of every country to decide the identity and character of their own state.

Is the international community obliged to determine if Congo wishes to be called the Democratic Republic or Iran the Islamic Republic? No, this is something chosen – in the case of a democracy – by the citizens who live there.

The issue also goes deeper and challenges the demographic reality of the Israeli state and its democracy. The axiom of "two states for two peoples, one Jewish and one Palestinian", currently being peddled by Israeli spokespersons, distorts the demographic reality of Israel in favour of depicting a population that is entirely Jewish.

Although it was intended to be just that, the practicalities of creating that state on land already inhabited by Palestinians left Israel with a significant population that did not fit its Zionist ideology. The very principle of a "Jewish state" in this circumstance is altogether contradictory to Israel's claims to be democratic.

Moreover, by forcing the Palestinian Authority to recognise the state's "Jewishness", Israel is obliging the Palestinians to recognise a system in which Israel's Arab citizens are second class. Those people, who represent 20% of Israel's population, become the "non-Jewish" citizens of the "Jewish state" – a contradiction with serious implications.

Jewish entitlements over non-Jewish citizens would naturally follow. Israel would continue to allow the right of return for Jews from all over the world but not to Palestinians who lost or were stripped of their own homes and property. Nor would Israel's own non-Jewish citizens naturally be entitled to seek family reunification inside the Jewish state, or any other such privileges afforded to Jews in a "Jewish" state. By achieving such acceptance, Israel would not be forced to undermine its Jewish character by allowing the repatriation of Palestinian refugees back into Israel.

Most importantly, it is illegitimate for Palestinian sovereignty to be contingent on this recognition and it is morally repugnant that the Palestinians must negotiate their freedom in this way. It is comparable to the Belfast agreement having been contingent on the IRA recognising Northern Ireland as a "Protestant" entity.

The current Palestinian leadership headed by President Mahmoud Abbas has been absolutely right in refusing to recognise Israel as a Jewish state because it does not have the authority to speak for the Israeli people; nor should it acknowledge such undemocratic expressions of ethno-nationalism. The Palestinians should be left to decide what their own state will look like, not what the character of Israel's will be. At the end of the day this issue is for Israelis to decide and bear the consequences of, not anyone else.


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