Disclosures by Al Jazeera from the Palestine Papers have confirmed what supporters and critics alike have known about the Palestinian Authority for some time. Even if PA negotiators are willing in principle to limited territorial compromise on the pre-1967 border (if only in private negotiations), they are opposed to the characterization of Israel as a “Jewish State.”
Regular observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will note that Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state has become as much of a sticking point for Israelis in negotiations as settlements and refugees have been for the PA. While Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu has not made such formal recognition a precondition for talks, he and many others believe that the unwillingness of the PA to recognize a Jewish state is a continued indication that it rejects the legitimacy of Israel itself.
One recently released document, NSU Memo Re: Talking Points on Recognition of Jewish State, offers perhaps the most clearly articulated arguments yet for why the PA reject this label. Most are familiar to even casual observers of the conflict: explicit recognition of Israel as a Jewish state has not been an explicit element of other Arab-Israeli peace treaties nor of previous negotiations with the PA, international recognition for states does not include their demographic character, and while Israel is globally recognized, a state of Palestine is not. “Your statehood is not in doubt. It is our statehood and the end of occupation and conflict that need to be resolved in our talks.”
Of course, there are problems with these claims. First and foremost, while explicit language that Israel must be recognized as a Jewish state was never included in negotiations, it was always implied. That talks between Israel and the PA often broke down over the status of identity-salient sites like the Temple Mount is a further confirmation of this. Explicit inclusion today is either a recognition of the particular nationalist challenge posed by Palestinians to Israel on the whole of its territory, or a stalling tactic by Israel to force the PA to agree to something to which it cannot afford politically, or both.
International recognition too has often been premised, both implicitly and explicitly on the demographic character of newly independent states. Pakistani secession from India at the moment of their shared independence from British rule in 1947 was indeed premised on the Muslim-majority character of these areas: both of West and East Pakistan, today Bangladesh. The secession of former republics of Yugoslavia, although delimited by their earlier provincial borders, also were an intentional nod to the majority ethnic characters of Slovenia, Croatia, and later Kosovo. Moreover, many national constitutions explicitly elevate the status of the majority ethnic group, whether defined by language, religion, or history: even Ireland and Norway as well as Iran, Malaysia, and yes, the Palestinian Authority itself.
The final point, however, is a particularly salient one. Why, ask Palestinian leaders and members of civil society, should we recognize a Jewish state, which in fact already exists? The problem, they insist, is not the continued existence of a Jewish state but the creation of a Palestinian one. Such recognition would require the PA to submit to a “discriminatory state by definition” in which the “indigenous Palestinian population” is denied their rights. This would contravene Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law.
(One may ask the same of the stipulations of the PA’s own laws. Its constitution is silent on the status of Jewish residents while the PLO charter denies citizenship to all Jews excepting those “who had normally resided in Palestine until the beginning of the Zionist invasion,” generally considered to date to the Balfour Declaration of 1917. )
The further consequence would be that after a Palestinian state would be established, Palestinians in what is left of Israel would no longer be able to claim national rights. So too, the descendants of Palestinian refugees would not be able to immigrate to the lands of their parents and grandparents. This, according to most mainstream Israeli political voices, is precisely the point. Tsipi Livni, Avigdor Lieberman, Ehud Barak, and Bibi Netanyahu all agree: a Palestinian state must be the place for the realization of the Palestinian national movement just as Israel must be the home for the Zionist national vision.
The PA document does raise a further interesting point in claiming that such demographic claims return the region to the language of the 1947 UN Partition Plan. “If Israel wishes to revisit this issue,” it argues, “then the status of Historic Palestine as a whole will have to be renegotiated.” The implication here is that borders would have to be up for discussion inside of pre-1967 Israel as well as post. Yet this is also the position of some 40-65% of Israelis; not so much in that they wish to surrender previously Arab majority areas, but that border changes and land swaps should reflect current demographic realities. This is an approach which Kadima’s Tsipi Livni as well as Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman is willing to consider. Here, Israel and the PA are clearly not speaking the same language.
A fear that recognition of a Jewish state would compromise demands of refugee return and complete Israeli evacuation of the West Bank, however, is not the only concern. It is also that such recognition:
could also strengthen Israel’s claims of sovereignty over all of Historic Palestine, including the OPT. Recognizing the Jewish state implies recognition of a Jewish people and recognition of its right to self-determination. Those who assert this right also assert that the territory historically associated with this right of self-determination (i.e., the self-determination unit) is all of Historic Palestine. Therefore, recognition of the Jewish people and their right of self-determination may lend credence to the Jewish people’s claim to all of Historic Palestine.
From one side, it is not difficult to perceive the PA’s dilemma. They feel that recognition of a Jewish right to self-determination is necessarily in conflict with their own. Control of the land, in this perspective, is an all-or-nothing proposition. Either the Palestinians have an exclusive claim to the land because Jews have no historic or national rights, or the Jews have an exclusive claim because they do have historic and national rights.
Palestinians accordingly reject the notion of Israel as a “permanent” Jewish homeland. An October 2010 poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research on behalf of the Israel Project found that the majority of Palestinians saw the 2-state solution as a “2-stage solution,” a stepping stone toward the unification of all of historic Palestine under Arab control. Only 23% of Palestinians agreed that “Israel has a permanent right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people” while some 66% support the argument that “Over time Palestinians must work to get back all the land for a Palestinian state.” It would be unrealistic to expect that the PA could oppose this overwhelmingly popular sentiment and still remain in power.
Opponents of Israeli insistence that Palestinians recognize a Jewish state assert that Netanyahu’s demands in this regard are all bluster; merely a means to delay and diminish inevitable Israeli territorial concessions. Yet if the PA cannot extend any recognition of Jewish self-determination akin to the self-same recognition they demand, can the PA really negotiate in good faith? If the Palestinian public is firmly opposed to sustained ideological concessions and the PA leadership believes recognition is a zero-sum game, is there a future for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations?
Just as the Palestinians would not accept negotiations on the premise that there is no rightful Palestinian claim to the land, they must accept that Jews have a just and irrevocable place here as well. Instead, the current Palestinian approach denies that their partner in negotiation should even be at the table. Tactics like refusing to negotiate when settlement building freezes are in place and demanding their extension as a precondition for future talks, and then turning to the international community to impose their demands via the UN Security Council make it clear that the PA prefers delegitimizing Israel to spending political capital on real negotiations.
Negotiations are a process of give and take; and no one can expect to go into a fair negotiation and leave with everything they demand. For Israel, this means that they will likely have to agree to farther reaching withdrawals than the body politic is currently prepared to stomach. For the Palestinians, this means giving up on expansive demands and face an angry public which has been consistently promised the whole of the land. PA recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is not part of this give and take: it is a precondition to have a meaningful conversation.