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The irony of Israel awaiting Abbas’ blessing

Israel’s declaration of independence and its Basic Laws define the state as Jewish, with or without Palestine's recognition

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

The Israeli prime minister was quoted recently telling his fellow Likud party members that it would be “absurd” to believe that his government would sign a peace agreement without an explicit recognition of Israel as a Jewish state by the Palestinian leadership.

In the absence of such recognition, he reiterated, he would not recognize a national homeland for the Palestinian people.

The irony is, that the absurdity is not in President Abbas’s refusal to cave in to this demand, but in the Israeli insistence on demanding it. Is Israel not a Jewish state unless the Palestinians recognize it as such? This is perplexing, as Israel’s declaration of independence and its Basic Laws define the state as Jewish.

Worse, this demand sets a precedence of asking a foreign leader to recognize the nature of the state and therefore undermines Israeli sovereignty.

The Zionist movement from its inception in the 19th century, aspired to build a sovereign state for the Jewish people away from external interference and intervention.

Moreover, after two millennia of living in diaspora communities, many Jewish communities endeavour to maintain a separate life from the rest of the society in fear of assimilation. Whatever the merits or faults of this approach, Netanyahu is presenting a new and illogical standard for the concept of a sovereign state and non-interference.

It is mind boggling why anyone would be pressured to recognise the religion, ideology or the constitutional arrangements of a neighboring country as a condition for a peace agreement. It is even more peculiar considering that the Israelis themselves cannot agree about the nature of the Jewish state and have thus far failed to write a constitution which would reflect the ‘Jewishness’ of the state.

Sovereignty over recognition

Netanyahu’s demand of Abbas, for all means and purposes, is rendered insignificant considering that Israel is a sovereign state. The notion of sovereignty has evolved since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 to its current form. International law defines sovereignty unequivocally as the right of state and government for unqualified and exclusive political and legal authority within its borders.

Corollary of sovereignty is non-interference and non-intervention by other external political entities without consent. This was expressed in U.N. Resolution 2625 from 1970 which aimed to promote ‘Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States.’ It declares that “No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State.” Diverting from this means violation of international law.

Netanyahu’s demand of Abbas, for all means and purposes, is rendered insignificant considering that Israel is a sovereign state.

Yossi Mekelberg

To be sure, a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians should express a very clear mutual recognition of each other’s right for self-determination and end to all claims. Kerry’s efforts to bring about an approved framework for a two state solution must concentrate on all the core outstanding issues such as borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, and settlements.

Determining the character of the Israeli and Palestinian states should be left to the people themselves, as long as they recognize the sovereignty of each other and adhere to international conventions and norms, as all United Nation countries are obliged to.

If and when the conflict is resolved, the post-conflict era will be the time for state and nation building, in addition to a healing process from a long and bloody conflict. No doubt the Israelis have an idea what kind of state they would like to emerge on her borders.

They can even incentivize it, but cannot impose it. The reality is Israel is a Jewish state, even though Israelis disagree about the exact nature of her character. Internationally the right of a Jewish state to exist was endorsed by the U.N. Partition Plan back in 1947. The historical tragedy is that the second part of Resolution 181 of forming a Palestinian state has not yet materialized.

Tactical obstruction

In my mind, Netanyahu’s insistence that Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish State can only be explained either as an entrenched sense of insecurity or a callous attempt to wreck any chance of a peace agreement.

It can be argued, if one would like to give Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt, his demand stems from basic Israeli-Jewish insecurity; an insecurity which needs constant reassurance and is coupled with deep distrust of the Palestinians. Alternatively, it is just another obstructive negotiation technique by the Israeli prime minister. He knows, as anyone else, that this puts the Palestinian leader in an almost impossible position.

One fifth of the Israeli population is Palestinian, let alone as part of a peace agreement Abbas will be required to publicly accept that very few Palestinians will be allowed to go back and live in what used to be their homes inside Israel. Neither Israeli Arabs nor the Palestinian Diaspora will be happy for him to publicly recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

He must therefore tread very carefully, if he wants to build a critical mass that supports an agreement which will bring to an end the dream of return. It is especially tricky for him since Israel previously signed peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, but did not demand that these two countries recognize the state.

Furthermore, what makes one suspicious is that Netanyahu’s demand is no more than a tactical obstruction, is that it is relatively new. Netanyahu brought it this requirement only in the last few years, telling the U.S. Congress that if Abbas would only recognize Israel as a Jewish State, then 90 percent of the conflict would be over. It is hard to believe that even he takes this argument seriously.

Eventually, the citizens of Israel, including her minorities, will have to define the nature of the state. Judaism is not only religion, but also a form of national identity and culture. In the twentieth century, it is intellectually difficult to support a state defined by its religion.

Yet, given the harrowing history of the Jewish people in the diaspora and the need for an independent and sovereign state which reflects Jewish life in its modern manifestation, could be understood by most of the international community. However, this should not be at the expense of the legitimate rights of the Palestinians inside Israel or in the Occupied territories.

For this, Israel does not need Palestinian approval of its Jewishness, but it should embark on a soul searching exercise, which hopefully will end with a state deserving of the titles Jewish and democratic.


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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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