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The Problem Is Palestinian Rejectionism

Nearly two decades of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have failed miserably. The key reason for this failure is the Palestinians’ refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

The basic paradigm of the Oslo accords, signed in 1993, held that both the Israelis and the Palestinians were, at long last, prepared to recognize the legitimacy of each other’s national rights and aspirations. With that essential threshold crossed, it was thought, all that would remain was to work out a compromise on core issues: where to draw borders, whether and how to divide Jerusalem, and how to resolve the Palestinian demand that refugees from the 1948 war be allowed to return to Israel.

That, at least, was the theory. Yet over the course of the last 18 years, during which negotiations were conducted along these lines, the rhetoric and actions of the Palestinian leadership have proved that paradigm wrong. The Palestinians have not in fact recognized the legitimacy of the national rights of the Jewish people. Consider, for example, the Palestinians’ refusal to negotiate with Israel over the past year, a result, they say, of continued settlement construction in Jerusalem and beyond the 1967 lines. This is a dubious claim given that the Palestinians have never made halting construction a precondition before. And when Israel did freeze settlement building for ten months in 2009–10, the Palestinians still refused to talk, only agreeing to do so at the last moment and even then only to prevent a crisis in their relations with the United States.

The true reason for the intransigence among Palestinian officials has nothing to do with settlement building; rather, it is their continued rejection of the Jewish character of Israel. The Palestinians are fully aware that once they sit down at the negotiating table and agreement is reached on all other outstanding issues, they will need to answer whether they are ready to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. And as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the U.S. Congress this past May, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state. It has always been about the existence of the Jewish state.” He continued: “The Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it.”

Israel has maintained its independence and self-determination through its ability to defend itself. But prowess on the battlefield is not equivalent to true stability and peace. The Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state stands at the root of the struggle and behind every so-called core issue, from determining borders to resolving the dispute over Palestinian refugees. Genuine reconciliation can be achieved, then, only once the Palestinians come to terms with Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

IT’S 1947, NOT 1967

The assumption that the Palestinians had consented to accept Israel as a Jewish state was based on a letter that the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat sent to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin just prior to the signing of the Oslo accords. The letter, which states that “the [Palestine Liberation Organization] recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security,” was seen as a breakthrough, confirmation that the Palestinians were ready to forsake violence and live in peace with Israel. But Israeli negotiators at the time misinterpreted what exactly Arafat meant when he claimed he would recognize Israel. Arafat’s letter carefully avoided acknowledging that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, giving rise to two complementary approaches to Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state by the PLO: one that rejects Israel outright and another that accepts Israel as a political entity but continues to refuse to accept its character as the homeland of the Jewish people.

The first Palestinian strategy maintains that Israel has no right to exist, let alone as a Jewish state. According to this position, which is reserved for domestic consumption, all the land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River belongs to the Palestinians, and thus the existence of any political entity other than a Palestinian state within that area is unacceptable. There may be temporary or even long-term cease-fires with Israel, but sooner or later, the entire land will be “restored” to the Palestinians, either by political means or by force of arms. The most obvious advocates of this blunt stance are Islamic terrorist organizations, such as Hamas, which now controls the Gaza Strip, and other associated groups. This past May, Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, commemorated the 1948 war by pronouncing his “great hope of bringing an end to the Zionist project in Palestine.” Similarly, last November, his Hamas colleague Mahmoud al-Zahar declared in a speech in the Gaza Strip that “the expulsion [of the Jews] will come . . . from all of Palestine. . . . We are going to expel them.”

Yet these Islamic groups are hardly alone in believing that Israel should be entirely destroyed. In fact, as recently as 2009, Fatah, the supposedly moderate party that constitutes the largest faction of the PLO, reaffirmed its official charter, which mandates the continuation of armed struggle until the Palestinians have achieved the “complete liberation of Palestine, and eradication of Zionist economic, political, military, and cultural existence.” The Fatah official Abdallah Abu Samhadana confirmed this sentiment in May when, in celebration of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, he noted that there exists “full conformity” between the political programs of the two movements.

The second prong, meant to be palatable to an international audience, accepts the existence of Israel and even recognizes its right to exist, but only as a state without any ethnic or national identity. Underlying this position is a faith that Israel will ultimately be transformed into a Palestinian state through demographics, as higher birthrates among Arab citizens of Israel and an influx of Palestinian refugees fulfilling “the right of return” create an Arab majority. Arafat best captured the logic of this argument when he spoke of the “Palestinian womb” as his best weapon against Israel. This track seems more pragmatic, but it agrees with the first position in its ultimate aims. It speaks of a two-state solution, but not of a “two states for two peoples” solution.

Despite their differences, these coexistent Palestinian approaches agree that Israel’s Jewish character must not be acknowledged. To avoid doing so, the Palestinian leadership distinguishes between organizations, such as Fatah and Hamas, and institutions, such as the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. The former continue to reject the existence of the state of Israel entirely, whereas the latter formally recognize Israel -- with which they must interact in order to operate -- but continue to indoctrinate the Palestinian public against any acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state. This dichotomy was best expressed in 2006 by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who told Palestinian television that “Hamas, Fatah, and the Popular Front [for the Liberation of Palestine] are not being asked to recognize Israel. . . . It’s the right of any organization [to deny Israel’s existence]. But the government . . . will have to operate daily with the Israelis . . . to solve people’s problems.” This careful division allows Palestinian institutions to seem reasonable, currying favor with and receiving assistance from the international community, while still bypassing recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. And it allows Palestinian political parties themselves to avoid recognizing Israel as a state at all.


Last November, writing in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, summarized the three fundamental reasons why Palestinians have continued to resist the notion of a Jewish Israel. First, he wrote, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would “empty the negotiations on the refugee issue of all content,” implicitly abandoning any hope for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants to return to their former homes now within Israeli territory. Although the Palestinians have offered some compromise on this question in the past, they remain unwilling to publicly renounce the right of return -- which, if implemented, would threaten or ultimately eliminate the Jewish majority in Israel.  

Erekat also said that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would “adversely impact the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel.” This is a baseless argument, since Israel will continue to guarantee the full and equal civil rights of all its citizens, and reflects the way in which Palestinian leaders see the Arab citizens of Israel as allies in their struggle. Only last year, for example, an Arab member of Israel’s Knesset was introduced at a PLO rally as “our representative within the 1948 territories.”

Finally, Erekat pointed out that recognition of Israel’s Jewish character would require the Palestinians to change their basic narrative about the conflict to the point of its “absolute annulment.” From his perspective, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would mean the “adoption of Zionist ideology,” a position that the Palestinian national movement could never endorse.

For these reasons, the so-called moderate Palestinians, whom Erekat represents, will agree only to an Israel with no formal ethnic identity and that thus has the potential of becoming an Arab-majority state. These leaders praise the idea of a two-state solution but deliberately reject the notion of two states for two peoples or two nation-states. For example, Abbas declared in 2007 that “Israel has Jews and other people, and this we are ready to recognize, but nothing else.” More recently, Abbas’ associate Nabil Shaath told a Lebanese television network that the “two states for two peoples” formula “is unacceptable to us. . . . They can describe Israel itself as a state for two peoples, but we will be a state for one people.”

Indeed, when challenged, the current Palestinian leadership has steadfastly maintained its opposition to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Speaking in Ramallah this past August, Abbas said, “Don’t order us to recognize a Jewish state. We won’t accept it.” And he and his team reinforce this notion throughout Palestinian society. Palestinian school curricula publish maps that omit Israel, and Palestinian state-run television airs testimonials such as this one from May 2010: “I’m from Jaffa, I’m from Haifa, I’m from Acre, I’m from Nazareth. . . . Where are you [Jews] from? Why have you stolen my homeland and taken my place? This is my homeland. Go back to your homeland.”

These statements must be taken seriously. They are not simply rhetoric, meant to win public support or to be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations. Were that the case, the Palestinians would have used them long ago as leverage to win a favorable compromise and gain the state that they claim to seek. Instead, they have failed to demonstrate any desire to relinquish these positions for the sake of peace and sought to force the recognition issue off the agenda through a variety of deflections.

To begin with, they argue that the Israeli government’s current request that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is a new precondition set by Netanyahu, simply meant to stall the peace process. Yet this particular issue, whose resolution is not an Israeli prerequisite for talks, has surfaced in every round of negotiations between the parties, either explicitly or in relation to topics such as the refugee question. Indeed, the official reservations of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government to the “road map” peace plan, introduced in 2002, highlighted the absence of Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and insisted that “declared references must be made to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and to the waiver of any right of return for Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel.” According to documents of negotiations held in 2008 between then Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei, leaked by al Jazeera and The Guardian last January, Livni stressed that “Israel is a Jewish state” and its nation “the Jewish nation.”

Palestinian leaders also exploit Israel’s demand to be recognized as a Jewish state as a means of inflating the religious dimension of the conflict. According to the basic Palestinian position, Judaism is merely a religion, not a nation -- and, as a result, Jews should not be entitled to an independent state. The Palestinian National Charter, for example, originally stated that “Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.” This position ignores the fact that Israel seeks acceptance not of its religious identity but of its ethnic and national character as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Even so, Israel maintains a reasonable separation between religion and state, and it has no desire to become a theocracy.

So far, the international community has proved unwilling to pressure the Palestinians on this point. Of late, U.S. policymakers and some of their European counterparts have begun to emphasize their commitment to Israel as the Jewish state or the homeland of the Jewish people and to refer to the need to reach a settlement involving “two states for two peoples” (and not just “two states”). For example, whereas the road map made no reference to Israel as a Jewish state, U.S. President Barack Obama called this past May for mutual recognition based on “two states for two peoples” and acceptance of Israel as a “Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people.” A subsequent French initiative referred to “two states for two peoples” (albeit without explicitly mentioning the Jewish people) and was followed up in July by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé’s call for Israel to be recognized as the “nation-state of Israel for the Jewish people.”

But the United States and the European Union have largely preferred to focus on the other core issues rather than pressure the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinians can thus claim, with some degree of truth, that there has never been any global expectation that they accept Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.


The Palestinians often say that it is not their job to define Israel’s identity. In April, for instance, Abbas declared that Israel could name itself “the Hebrew Socialist Republic” if it wanted, but that it was “none of [his] business.” But acknowledgment of Israel as a Jewish state is both justified and critical. To begin with, Palestinian acceptance would ease Israeli fears about the Palestinians’ true motivations. The violent Palestinian uprising launched after the breakdown of the Oslo process in 2000 was at least partially financed and orchestrated by the PA leadership, leaving Israelis cynical about the PA’s intentions. Although Abbas has stated his personal opposition to armed resistance, which he regards as counterproductive to the Palestinian cause, Israelis remain wary of terrorism emanating from territory controlled by the PA.

A peace based on mutual recognition -- a positive peace -- is the only long-term antidote to the deep-seated cultural animosity between the two sides. Any agreement that does not address the underlying ideological motivations of the conflict would allow for an eruption of hostilities at the first sign of trouble. Social and political institutions that promote violence can be eliminated only through the development of a culture of peace and a transformation of the popular mindset. The Palestinians are not alone in needing to combat the radical ideologies in their midst; Israel must also devote more effort to uprooting pockets of xenophobia among its people.

Palestinian leaders often complain that Israel did not seek this kind of mutual recognition in its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. This is true, and it is regrettable that these countries do not acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state; their lack of acceptance is certainly one of the reasons that the wider public in those countries has not embraced their peace with Israel. But the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is fundamentally different from that between Israel and Egypt or Jordan.

To begin with, in their negotiations with Israel, Egypt and Jordan never asserted any territorial claims against the area of sovereign Israel. Unlike many Palestinians today, the Egyptians and the Jordanians harbor no aspirations to make Israeli cities, such as Haifa or Jaffa, part of their respective states. And whereas there are no Egyptian or Jordanian national minorities living within Israel, many Arab citizens of Israel identify themselves as Palestinian nationals. Operating among them are political, religious, and ideological forces dedicated to subverting the existence of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. In 2006, for example, representatives from the National Committee for the Heads of the Arab Local Authorities in Israel issued a document entitled The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel, which calls for the introduction of “consensual democracy” in Israel, in which both the Palestinian and the Jewish nations would partner to govern Israel jointly -- the equivalent of a binational state. And leaders of the Islamic Movement in Israel, a group advocating Islam among Arab citizens of Israel, have been convicted of funneling millions of dollars to Hamas. If Israel were to drop its demand for recognition of its Jewish character, it would lay the groundwork for collaboration between leaders of a future Palestinian state and sympathetic Arab citizens of Israel to erode Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish nation-state.

There are also basic strategic disparities between Israel’s agreements with Egypt and Jordan and its relationship with the Palestinians. Egypt and Jordan are organized, sovereign actors on the international stage with a monopoly over the use of force within their borders, as well as U.S. allies. These conditions allowed for reasonable security arrangements and buffers to be put in place with Israel. But the same realities do not prevail in the Palestinian context. The PA is only a would-be state without any legacy of governance or practice in exercising a monopoly over violence. Should it achieve sovereignty, it may not be able to stand on its own two feet without the security support that it receives from Israel, as its loss of Gaza to Hamas in 2007 demonstrated. Whereas both Egypt and Jordan perceive the attempts of terrorist groups to operate against Israel from within their respective territories as a threat to their own interests, it is far from certain that a Palestinian state would take a similar view. In fact, if a newly created Palestinian state did not accept Israel as a Jewish state, it is possible that it would eventually serve as a launch pad for terrorist strikes against Israel’s heartland.

These disparities render peace with the Palestinians distinct from both the Egyptian and the Jordanian cases and explain Israel’s insistence that a positive peace is essential for any final settlement.


True progress between the Israelis and the Palestinians will require a daring paradigm shift. Rather than a focus on the issues of settlement activity and territory, success in the negotiations will first require at least a tentative change in the Palestinian position on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Such a change would address Israel’s primary security concerns and facilitate rapid progress on all the remaining core issues.

The leadership of pre-state Israel accepted the notion of partitioning mandatory Palestine into two states in 1937, and in more recent times, Israeli leaders have demonstrated that they accept that the Palestinians have legitimate national rights -- including the right to self-determination in the historic birthplace of the Jewish people. Israel has adopted this position despite serious reservations about Palestinian nationalism and Palestinian leaders’ unflinching resistance to the existence of the Jewish state. There must now be reciprocity. Israel is prepared to facilitate the creation of a Palestinian state and forgo the dream of a Greater Israel. In return, the Palestinians must abandon their ambitions of eventually expanding their state to encompass all of mandatory Palestine.

But it appears that Abbas simply does not want, feels no need, or is perhaps unable to offer substantive concessions or acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state. In the absence of external pressure, which could conceivably induce him to reconsider his position, and fearing a challenge to his authority from Hamas and other extremist groups, Abbas may continue to resist affirming Israel’s Jewish identity. His hesitancy to take such a step is particularly troubling because it is hard to imagine another Palestinian figure with his pedigree, as a founding member of Fatah, who would be capable of doing so.

Without Abbas’ cooperation, the best that could be hoped for is a cold peace. The Palestinians might continue pursuing unilateral actions against Israel in the international community, but this would only undermine the prospects for a lasting reconciliation. Or they may decide to wait for a future Israeli government that takes a less stringent view of its security requirements, including the issue of Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state -- although it is unlikely that the Israeli public would elect a leader willing to capitulate on these core components.

Accordingly, if the Palestinians remain steadfast in their refusal to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, Israel will necessarily shift its focus toward devising a framework that enables some kind of conflict management. Such an arrangement might involve Israel’s continued support for the capability of the Palestinians to guarantee internal security and contribute to broader regional security, while providing a better quality of life for their citizens. Moreover, Israel and the Palestinians could consider interim agreements, such as one that would create a Palestinian state with provisional boundaries. In this context, Israel could work with the Palestinian leadership to promote a culture of peace and tolerance.
But these steps would not solve the fundamental problem impeding negotiations. If Abbas is to gain the confidence of the Israeli public, he must be prepared to sign an agreement that incorporates formal Palestinian acceptance of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Without this acknowledgment, even effective security cooperation will not win the full trust of the Israelis. Abbas must be made to understand that the only avenue to Palestinian independence -- which, at this juncture, only he can achieve -- runs through such recognition.

Unfortunately, the Palestinian president appears fundamentally uninterested in negotiations without preconditions. This is, on one level, understandable, for it will be hard to reach an equitable compromise with Israel and still meet the expectations of the Palestinian public. It is a challenge for Abbas to cooperate with Israel’s security arrangements or make concessions that generations of Palestinians have been indoctrinated to reject. But the path to peace is difficult -- and if Abbas truly wants to establish an independent and flourishing Palestinian state, he is going to have to do the hard work of accepting that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and convincing his people to do the same.

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