BICOM Briefing: Israel’s character as a ‘Jewish state’

Key Points

  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position that a permanent status agreement resulting in a two state solution must include explicit Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is rejected by Mahmoud Abbas, and is a key point of contention in the peace process.
  • For Netanyahu, and for most Israeli Jews, mutual recognition of Jewish and Palestinian national rights is integral to the logic of a lasting agreement based on two states for two peoples.
  • Most Israeli Jews wish to preserve Israel’s current character as a democratic state with a Jewish majority; a state that allows Jews to express the universal legal right to national self-determination, but which also protects fully the rights of non-Jewish minorities.
  • At the Davos Summit in January, US Secretary of State John Kerry said: “We all know what the endgame looks like: … mutual recognition of the nation-state of the Palestinian people and the nation-state of the Jewish people.”

Why is this an issue now?

  • Since accepting the principle of creating a sovereign Palestinian state in 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu has stressed that a permanent status agreement must include Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. In a recent statement he clarified that he wanted the Palestinians to “recognise the national rights of the Jewish people in the State of Israel.” While stating that this must be part of the final agreement at no point has Netanyahu made this a precondition for talks with the Palestinians
  • Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has taken a firm stance against this demand, creating a significant obstacle in John Kerry’s search for an agreed framework for continuing talks.

What do Israelis mean by a Jewish state?

  • For Netanyahu, and for most Israeli Jews, mutual recognition of Jewish and Palestinian national rights in the territory west of the Jordan River is integral to the logic of a lasting peace based on two states for two peoples.
  • Most Israeli Jews want to preserve Israel’s character as it is today, as both democratic and Jewish. Israel today is ‘Jewish’ in the sense that it has a Jewish majority, allows that majority to express the universal legal right to national self-determination, and is open to Jews who wish to immigrate. This is no different to most other states which express the right of the ethnic majority to self-determination, whilst still protecting the rights of minorities.
  • Reference to a ‘Jewish state’ does not mean a state based on religious precepts, or a state which discriminates against non-Jews.
  • All Israelis today – both the 75% Jewish majority and non-Jewish minorities – enjoy equal rights before the law and freedom of religion. Non-Jewish minorities enjoy collective rights in education, language and religion. Discrimination based on religious or ethnic identity is illegal.
  • To maintain Israel’s Jewish majority, and its character as the nation state of the Jewish people, Israel wants Palestinian refugee claims to be resolved through the creation of a Palestinian state.

Why are the Palestinians resistant to this idea?

  • Rejection of Jewish national rights – indeed rejection of the idea that the Jews constitute a distinct national group – is deep rooted in the Palestinian-Arab narrative. It is linked to the belief that all of Palestine is rightfully an Arab territory and that Arab refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants should have the ‘right of return’ to territory now within Israel’s borders.
  • However, Palestinians have not always been so opposed to recognition of the Jewish state. The Palestinian declaration of independence in 1988 referenced the UN 1947 Partition Plan, which explicitly refers to the creation of a Jewish and an Arab state side by side.
  • When former US President Bill Clinton addressed the refugee issue in his parameters for a peace agreement in 2000, he noted Israel could not accept a right to immigrate that would “threaten the Jewish character of the state,” adding that, “A new State of Palestine is about to be created as the homeland of the Palestinian people, just as Israel was established as the homeland of the Jewish people.” The PLO’s detailed response raised no challenge to this basic principle.
  • In a June 2004 interview with Haaretz, the late PA President Yasser Arafat was asked explicitly whether he understood that “Israel has to keep being a Jewish state.” He responded, “Definitely, definitely, I told them we had accepted [this] openly and officially in 1988.”
  • However, since Netanyahu raised the profile of the issue, the PA leadership has become very resistant. They claim not only that it prejudices Palestinian refugee claims but that Israel’s demand threatens minority rights in Israel, or involves asking Palestinians to renounce their identity or history. Israel rejects these latter two objections.

What have world leaders said?

  • Prime Minister David Cameron: “Israel’s place as a homeland for the Jewish people … is founded in the spirit and strength of your people, it is founded in international law.”
  • Labour leader Ed Miliband: “I come with an understanding of what Israel provided my family and that it is a homeland for the Jewish people, not just in theory but, in my family’s case, in practice.”
  • Secretary of State John Kerry: “We all know what the endgame looks like: … mutual recognition of the nation-state of the Palestinian people and the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
  • US President Barack Obama: “Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state.”
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “We in the federal government support a two-state solution – a Palestinian state and a Jewish state of Israel.”
  • French President Francois Hollande: “France’s position is known. It is that of a negotiated solution for the State of Israel and the State of Palestine – both with Jerusalem for capital – can coexist in peace and security. Two States for two peoples.”
  • Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper: “We share with Israel a sincere hope that the Palestinian people and their leaders will choose a viable, democratic, Palestinian state, committed to living peacefully alongside the Jewish state of Israel … Our view on Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is absolute and non-negotiable.”
  • Gordon Brown (during speech to Knesset as Prime Minister): “Over sixty years I believe that you have shown the greatest of ingenuity in solving the greatest of problems: I think of David Ben Gurion, who … said it was not enough for the Jewish state simply to be Jewish, it had to be fully democratic offering equal citizenship to all residents.”

What is the historical background?

  • The founder of modern political Zionism Theodore Herzl helped launch the movement with a pamphlet published in 1896 entitled Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews). Following many centuries of anti-Semitic persecution in Europe, he and most other Zionist leaders envisaged a secular, democratic, Jewish majority state in which non-Jews would live as full and equal citizens.
  • The British government committed to support “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” in the 1917 Balfour Declaration. This goal received international legal sanction under the League of Nations Mandate granted to Britain in 1922, which gave recognition to, “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”
  • In 1947 the United Nations General Assembly approved with a two thirds majority a plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The proposal was accepted by the Jews but rejected by the Arabs, who then launched the 1947-48 Arab-Israeli War.
  • Israel declared its independence on the basis of the UN resolution on May 1948. Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of: “A Jewish State in Eretz-Israel [the Land of Israel], to be known as the State of Israel,” which would ensure “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.” The State of Israel was admitted to the United Nations in May 1949.

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