Why ‘Jewish state’ demand is a non-starter

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demands Palestinians recognise Israel as “a Jewish state” and US President Barack Obama, who used this language in his state of the union address, signalled US support for this position. This is disastrous for the prospects for peace and not something the Palestinians can or should ever accept. Here is why.
First, the PLO accepted the Israeli demand to recognise the State of Israel decades ago and Israel never reciprocated with recognition of the State of Palestine or its right to exist. Now, while still denying self-determination to Palestinians, Israel demands recognition “as a Jewish state” not from the world but only from Palestinians. Israel does not want to formally change its name to “the Jewish State of Israel” which would allow it to join an elite group of theocracies like the Islamic Republic of Iran. It only wants Palestinians to accept it as such. Why?
Second, this demand adds insult to injury. The ostensibly pragmatic land-for-peace approach is one that says the parties will never agree on a historical narrative and must look to the future instead. But the Jewish state demand undercuts this and demands Palestinians accept the Israeli narrative that securing Jewish majoritarianism in Palestine was morally justified even if it necessitated destroying Palestinian society and created masses of Palestinian refugees. Asking Palestinians to make a deal that focuses on the future is one thing, but asking them to accept the crimes committed against them is another altogether. It is unbecoming of a party that claims to want a just peace.
Third, recognition of a “Jewish state” by Palestinians and by extension the US and the rest of the world that would accept agreements on such terms, would not only lend credibility to past measures to maintain a Jewish majority but it will also enable future ones. This directly imperils Palestinian citizens of Israel, like myself, living in the “Jewish state” as non-Jews.
It is conceivable that a state recognised by Palestinians as Jewish may soon say to its Palestinian citizens: “Go to the Palestinian state, that is where you belong,” discriminate against them further, or engage in ethnic cleansing. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman already openly advocates such policies today. To recognise Israel as a Jewish state would only give license to further efforts of marginalising or removing this population with the goal of maintaining Jewish majoritarianism.
A magical use of language would not sufficiently wed recognition of a Jewish state with the principle of safeguarding the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Every Palestinian recalls that the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which established London’s support for Zionism, noted that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. This did little to prevent the Nakba which followed as Zionism’s goal materialised.
As the Israeli historian Benny Morris said, “A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore, it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population.” Legitimising the pursuit of Jewish majoritarianism ad infinitum opens the door to future actions like this.
Fourth, this is an entirely new demand from the Israeli side that did not exist a few years ago. Today, the Israelis present it as a deal breaker. That the Americans allow this is a significant problem. When Washington accepts new Israeli demands, Israel moves the goal posts further away from a middle ground where a just peace can be made. Making matters worse is that while Washington accepts new Israeli demands, it also fails to enforce Israeli obligations. The Road Map, which called for a settlement freeze, was never enforced. This allows Israel to have its cake, eat it, and then demand even more cake. Little more than the crumbs are left for Palestinians.
No Israeli politician has pushed this issue as strongly domestically and internationally as Netanyahu. He has created resonance in Israeli public opinion and argues now that his hands are tied on this matter.
The truth is, the main reason Netanyahu makes this demand is that he knows the Palestinians cannot accept it for all of the above reasons. Yet, he makes it, knowing it will be met with sympathy in Washington and put the Palestinians in the position of looking like rejectionists. This way, he aims to put a stop to any negotiations that would lead to an end to Israeli occupation. Palestinians shouldn’t stand for this, neither should anyone else.
Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and its educational programme, The Palestine Center. Prior to joining the Palestine Center, he served as a Policy Analyst for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the nation’s largest Arab American membership organisation.–Aljazeera