Will the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state?

The recognition of a “Jewish state” has become an elementary component of the current Israeli government negotiation strategy

Dr. Naser al-Tamimi

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Through recent rounds of peace negotiations regarding the Middle East, the recognition of a “Jewish state” has become an elementary component of the current Israeli government negotiation strategy. The focus on this concept prompted many Jewish leaders (from the government and opposition) to demand that the Palestinian Authority (PA) recognizes Israel as a Jewish state. This strange and suspicious demand by the Israeli government promotes the obvious question: what is meant by a Jewish state?

Many Israeli politicians have given us various interpretations of this term, but the explanations are ultimately unconvincing and contrary to political logic, not to mention the historical, geographical and demographical facts. How can a state be democratic and called only Jewish? Does Jewish here mean identity, nationalism, or religion? How will the “others” fit into this picture? And wouldn’t it seem hypocritical to accuse some Americans, Europeans or whoever who demand turning their county into a Christian state or something else of anti-Semitism or racism, while they are demanding a Jewish state for themselves? Above all, why has Israel waited for about a quarter of a century of negotiations with the Palestinians to raise the subject now?

Palestinian position

It seems the camp that put pressure on the Palestinian side to accept the Israeli conditions(Arabs and Americans) espouse arguments based on three basic assumptions: firstly, that the aim of Israel’s obstinacy is to push the Palestinians to take up rigid positions in order to put an end to the peace process. Secondly, the Israeli extreme right seeks to make a peace agreement harder to reach, placing the responsibility on the PA in order to stop the negotiation, continue building settlements and take unilateral steps. Finally, that the Palestinians are the weaker side and do not have many options.

From my point of view, the term Jewish state will only add to the complexity of the current situation

Dr. Naser al-Tamimi

If these assumptions are correct, this in turn should make the Palestinians more determined to reject the Israeli conditions, because their acceptance will bring new conditions. Also, the building of Jewish settlements has never stopped; in fact, under the so-called peace process (and under the current Israeli government) the building of settlements has accelerated more than ever in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although it is true that the Palestinians have few options, throughout the history of colonialism the people who have been subjected to occupation never did have many good options.

New conflict

From my point of view, the term Jewish state will only add to the complexity of the current situation and open a door to new conflicts rather than solving the old ones. Indeed, the Middle East has suffered more than enough from religious and sectarian conflicts. Perhaps more importantly, the term of Jewish state might provide the Islamists with new and more affective ammunition and further weaken the already weak Palestinian authority. Here it brings to mind another question: Do some Israelis intentionally want the conflict to take on a religious dimension?

However, on deep reflection through the history of the conflict, the term itself expresses Israel’s anxieties more than anything else. From the Israelis’ perspective, all political solutions represent the process of choosing between bad and worse. Or to put it bluntly: the issue of Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state is only smoke screen to cover-up Israel’s strategic dilemma rather than looking for a solution to the conflict.

More crucially, the situation reminds us of the same predicament that once faced the late Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin in dealing with the first Palestinian Intifada during the 1990s, as a result he famously said that he wished to wake up in the morning and see that “the sea swallowed Gaza.” Rabin was himself killed by a Jewish extremist. Either way, Gaza is still there.

The Arab weakness

The above analysis leads us to the next important point: to impose impossible conditions on the weaker party will not lead to peace. Yes in the circumstances currently prevailing in the Middle East it’s safe to argue that Israel’s current strategic position is secure as it faces no existential threats. Or as the Israelis always repeat among themselves: “We won the war…Why would we want peace and give up land?”

Meanwhile the Palestinians are weak, divided and do not hold any of the “power cards” by which they can become an equal partner in the negotiation process. Perhaps this Palestinian predicament in parallel with the fractious nature of Israeli coalition politics could tempt the supporters of the “Jewish state” to be more ambitious in their wishes than Rabin, as they may wish this time that “the sea swallows all the Palestinians.”

Indeed, as the drama of the so-called “Arab Spring” is still unfolding with its unknown long-term repercussions, the weakness of the Arab side has created a situation in which the Israelis no longer (at least for now) have to worry about any collective Arab conventional military attack. Consequently the Israeli government is taking advantage of this situation to create new realities on the ground.

Israel’s limited options

Nevertheless, Israel’s strategic environment is not as predictable as it may have seemed before the regional upheaval. The protracted conflict with the Palestinians in a small land mass with multiple frontiers, the political uncertainty in neighbouring countries and the strategic repositioning of the United States means there are persistent security risks and an uncertain future.

Logic says that weakness is not permanent, and even the weaker party accompanied with supportive regional and international environment could make a surprise strike from nowhere. Indeed, factors of geography, history and demography still present Israel’s strategists and policy-makers with the same old dilemma, thus making their options limited. This is something that Rabin understood very well earlier - that “the sea will never swallow Gaza” - and he began acting accordingly.

Ultimately, until the supporters of the “Jewish state” understand as Rabin did a long time ago that “the sea will not swallow the Palestinians,” we may witness new chapters in the conflict, but this time in more “innovative” ways.


Dr Naser al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East analyst, and author of the forthcoming book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” He is an Al Arabiya regular contributor, with a particular interest in energy politics, the political economy of the Gulf, and Middle East-Asia relations. The writer can be reached at: Twitter: @nasertamimi and email: nasertamimi@hotmail.co.uk

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