Wednesday 2 April 2014

Recognising Israel as a Jewish State

In the context of the on-again off-again peace discussions between Israel and the Palestinians, one of the most public issues of disagreement surrounds the insistence by Israel that the Palestinians recognise Israel as Jewish state, and the Jewish homeland.  Is this a valid demand, or is Prime Minister Netanyahu simply using this demand as an excuse to create a roadblock in the process?  What advantage would such a recognition bring to Israel, and to its relationship with a future Palestinian state?

There seems to be much public disagreement over this demand, with most Israelis supporting the prime minister's insistence that our neighbours (and those around the world) be prepared to publicly acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state.  But how justified is Israel to demand that the international community should recognise it as a Jewish state.  Most countries around the world are happy to be simply recognised as a country by their name, with some adding the nature of the country's government to its name such as kingdom or republic.  Despite the opposition voiced by the Palestinians, there is a precedent for countries adding the predominant religion to their names as in "The Islamic Republic of Iran" or "The Islamic Republic of Pakistan".  Even though the international community has not always liked the activities of these Islamic republics, there has never been a question about recognising them as Islamic republics.  So why should there be any problem with recognising Israel as a Jewish state, even without adding this to its name?

The nature of Israel as a Jewish state has been a public matter since even before the State of Israel was established.  The Balfour Declaration, in which the British government ackowledged in 1917 that it viewed "with favour the establishment of Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people", was only one of many public statements made about the nature of Israel as a Jewish state.  Of course, the "Palestine" referred to by Balfour is modern-day Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and even includes Jordan.  UN General Assembly Resolution 181 was passed in November 1947, and includes reference in Part I A3 to independent Arab and Jewish states coming into existence in the area formerly known as Palestine.  Israel's Declaration of Independence was unequivocal in declaring Israel as the Jewish state  when it says, "... declare the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel, to be known as The State of Israel".  It could not be much clearer.  So, what drives the Palestinians need to deny this, and what gives them the right to change a decades-old reality?

The Palestinians have never admitted publicly why they wish to deny Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, but I speculate that it is connected to the issue of the return of the refugees.  This is a highly controversial matter that continues to be one of the points for discussion in the peace talks.  During the War of Independence in 1948, approximately 700,000 Arab residents of the nascent State of Israel fled their homes.  This was despite the invitation by the new Jewish government of the state for them to remain in their homes, and take up citizenship of the new state.  Those who chose to stay have enjoyed a relatively comfortable existence as citizens of Israel, with all democratic rights that flow from that.  Those who fled, on advice from the Arab leadership, were advised that they would have the opportunity to return triumphantly to reclaim their properties and to reclaim all the land which is the State of Israel.  That triumphant moment never came, and the refugees remain cooped up in refugee camps in countries on Israel's borders to this day.  Of the original generation of refugees, approximately 20,000 to 30,000 still remain.  The descendants of the refugees now number around 5 million.  They have been kept in these camps as a form of pressure on Israel and the international community to allow the refugees to return to their original homes.  With 5 million people now part of the discussion, there is clearly no prospect that Israel will admit them as citizens of the State of Israel.  There is a discussion, however, about how this problem will be resolved such that these people will be given permanent homes and citizenship.  It is likely to be a combination of some moving to the West Bank, with others being naturalised in the countries in which they currently live, and in which most of them were born.  The connection between this issue and the issue of recognising Israel as a Jewish state, is that the act of recognising Israel as a Jewish state effectively means that the Palestinians will give up on any claim to move refugees of any significant number into Israel itself to return to the  homes in which they once lived.  The Palestinian leadership does not seem to be ready for this yet.

There are those who ask why Israel continues to insist that the Palestinians formally recognise the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, when this same requirement did not form any part of the peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt.  I believe that the answer to this is that the Jordanians and the Egyptians never doubted this.  The reason why they were at war with Israel is because it is a Jewish state, and the reason that they were finally prepared to reach a peace agreement with Israel was because they were prepared to accept this fact.  The recognition of the Jewish nature of Israel was the fundamental basis of the peace agreements.  The agreement with the Palestinians is much more complex, and is based on many other substantial points that are yet to be agreed.  The reason why Prime Minister Netanyahu is making a big issue out of recognising Israel as a Jewish state, is exactly because the Palestinians deny it.  I believe that most citizens of Israel would support the position that he takes.

When countries are founded and nations created, there is usually a common bond that connects the people in that country.  The common thread that connects Israelis who have come from all four corners of the earth over the past 66 years, is the fact that they are Jewish.  The majority of the citizens in Israel identify themselves as Jewish, and there is no way of denying this.  This is the will of most of the citizens, and any national agreement entered into with a party that denies this fact will not have the support of the citizens of Israel.   Now that this issue has such a high public profile, with the Palestinians continuing to be ambiguous about their recognition of Israel's Jewish character, many citizens of Israel would demand that the Palestinians unequivocally acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state before any agreement is signed.

The issue of recognising Israel as a Jewish state has been brought to the forefront of the peace talks.  The reason for this is really not clear, as the Palestinians have not explained why they object to this recognition.  For Israelis, the fact that they are objecting is cause for concern, and reason to insist that no peace deal can be signed without it.  This is surely the most basic requirement for any neighbour of Israel which wishes to respect Israel's existence according to the will of the majority of her citizens.

1 comment:

Gerald Levin said...

1 Gaza state is 7 years old, and has sent 7 000 rockets.
2 If West Bank is permitted, by continuity, the same can be expected
3 No recognition of Gaza statehood, AND no recognition for Israel?
4 Give Egypt a mandate for Gaza, via United Nations (U.N.)
4 Jordan mandate for 17%-21% of West Bank.
5 The "Three State Solution"!!!