Back when the Oslo Agreement was first signed in September 1993, the Palestine Liberation Organization explicitly recognized the State of Israel. A side letter written by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to Israeli Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin noted that :
The signing of the Declaration of Principles marks a new era in the history of the Middle East. In firm conviction thereof, I would like to confirm the following PLO commitments:
The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.
The PLO accepts United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.
For the first decade or more of the peace process, that was largely seen by Israel as sufficient to resolve the “recognition” issue.
More recently, however, the current Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has added an additional condition, namely that the PLO recognize Israel as an explicitly Jewish state. In response, and in an effort to assuage his critics in the Israeli advocacy community, President Obama has increasingly used formulations such as “Jewish state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people” in his speeches, although he has also tweaked that formulation somewhat in response to Palestinian unease.
We’ve discussed before why the vast majority of Palestinians oppose recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. In today’s Haaretz, Hassan Jabareen (lawyer, and founder and general director of Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) articulates the Palestinian view with considerable clarity:
In his speech before the U.S. Congress last May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posed a serious challenge to the Palestinian Authority: If the PA would just say, “We recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” this would be sufficient to end the conflict. Israel, said Netanyahu, would be the first to vote for Palestinian statehood in the United Nations. The response of PA Prime Minister Dr. Salam Fayyad, in a recent interview with Haaretz, was that, “Israel’s character is its own business. It is not up to the Palestinians to define it.”
That is an unconvincing response. If recognition is just a technical point, why not say the seven requested words in order to win the vote in the United Nations? …
For the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is to declare their surrender, meaning, to waive their group dignity by negating their historical narrative and national identity. This recognition would affirm that since the rebirth of Israel is a “natural” and exclusive right, the first revolt in “our” history as Palestinians – against the British Mandate in the 1930s for encouraging Jewish immigration, as well as our resistance to Israel’s establishment in 1948 – were mistakes. Thus, the Nakba is “our” fault only.
By this recognition, we would accept the rationale of the Law of Return, and as a result, we would waive our right to return, even in principle. Further, since the historical masters of the land possess rights a priori, the confiscation of Palestinian land and its designation as “absentee property” makes sense, even when members of this group are “present absentees” in Israel. Also, because the revival of Hebrew expresses the rebirth of the nation, it should be the sole official language of this land and we would also accept the names of our villages and sites being changed from Arabic to Hebrew.
With this recognition, the Palestinian citizens of the state in Nazareth and Haifa, who remained in their homes in 1948, cannot demand a “state for all of its citizens” and full equality because they do not enjoy the same original rights as Jews.
Not recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is not the same as denying the right of self-determination of Israeli Jews. The exercise of self-determination of any people is embodied mainly by their right to govern as a national group. Self-determination can be exercised without exclusion or discrimination, including in cases of multinational or multi-linguistic groups such as in Canada, Belgium, Switzerland or South Africa.
This explains why Palestinian citizens of Israel who recognize the right of Israel to exist and the right of self-determination of Israeli Jews, as it is expressed in the Arab “Future Vision” documents of 2006 and 2007, can still strongly resist the exclusiveness embodied in the definition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Jabareen may exaggerating the actual policy implications somewhat for political effect. By the same token, however, his objections are being voiced as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and are all the more deeply-felt for that reason.
The broader issue here is whether Israel actually needs such recognition, or whether the issue is now raised as a deliberate roadblock to negotiations. While I recognize the reasons why the demand reverberates among Israeli Jews the way it does, I would argue that it was primarily raised for the latter reason. Regardless of the original rationale, however, it risks acquiring a political momentum all it’s own—with the effect of generating greater tensions and further complicating any future peace negotiations (whenever those might be, and I’m not holding my breath).