Why Can't the Palestinians Recognize the Jewish state?

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VOL. 40


No. 4
P. 78
Why Can't the Palestinians Recognize the Jewish state?


Why Can’t the Palestinians
Recognize the Jewish State?

By Ahmad Samih Khalidi
Israel’s relatively recent demand for recognition as a “Jewish state” or “homeland for the Jewish people” has important implications for the Palestinians (whether refugees, citizens of Israel, or residents of the occupied territories) with regard to their history, identity, rights, and future. This essay explores the moral and practical reasons why they cannot accede to this demand, or even accept Israel’s self-definition as a matter of exclusive Israeli concern.

IN HIS SPEECH to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on 24 May 2011, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared:

It is time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say: “I will accept a Jewish state.” Those six words will change history. They will make clear to the Palestinians that this conflict must come to an end; that they are not building a state to continue the conflict with Israel, but to end it. They will convince the people of Israel that they have a true partner for peace.

Palestinian recognition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people has become a central Israeli demand that is being portrayed as an existential concomitant of Israel’s perceived security needs. Despite Israeli claims to the contrary, this is in fact a relatively recent demand, as Raef Zreik argued in the last issue of this journal. It was not raised in previous rounds of negotiations either with the Palestinians or with any other Arab party before 2008.

Be that as it may, not only has it been adopted by the current Israeli government, but it has secured growing support abroad from both Western governments and pro-Israeli and Jewish circles in the diaspora. In a major policy address on 19 May, President Barack Obama formally endorsed the definition of “Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people”—the first time a U.S. president has done so.

Meanwhile, the official PA/PLO position is that how Israel defines itself is not a Palestinian concern, and that the Palestinians cannot accede to this demand on two basic grounds: first, because defining Israel as a Jewish state prejudices the political and civic rights of Israel’s Arab citizens, who comprise 20 percent of the population and whose second-class status would be consolidated by dint of recognizing the “Jewishness” of the state, and second, because to acknowledge Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people would compromise the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, as there would be no moral or political grounds for them to return to a universally recognized Jewish state.