Netanyahu elaborates on what he means by "Jewish State" – and, he says, it is also a democratic state

One of the main critiques of recent insistent Israeli demand for Palestinian recognition of a “Jewish State” as a key part of any negotiated solution is: What, exactly, does it mean?

This questions have been asked by persons [including senior European diplomats with long experience in the region] who have what could be argued is a neutral position. Some Israelis also ask the same question.

Palestinian reaction is more visceral: anger. They believe they know what it means: they believe they are being asked to agree to another denial of their rights, and to another Palestinian expulsion.

This issue of a “Jewish State” was first prominently raised, in this decade, by the former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in his 14-point letter of reservation about the U.S.-backed Road Map in 2003. There was no strong public reaction at the time, though, it has to be said, most people have not read the Israeli reservations to the Road Map.

It came up again, suddenly, from former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, before the start of the Annapolis process of negotiations sponsored by the U.S. and launched in November 2007, with the goal of the creation of a Palestinian state by the end of 2008 [or, at very latest, by the end of the George W. Bush administration in January 2009]. Though it might have made all the difference in arriving at an early and successful conclusion of those direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, it was set aside upon American advice, because of the strong and confused Palestinian reaction. The Annapolis talks were terminated when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza on 27 December 2008.

Then, Israeli Prime Minister Benyahim Netanyahu replied, to U.S. President Barack Obama’s highly-publicized speech reaching out to the Muslim world from Cairo, with a speech of his own delivered from Bar Ilan University in which he mentioned the possibility of a demilitarized Palestinian state, if Palestinians recognized Israel as “the state of the Jewish people”.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] brushed this off by saying, several times, that he didn’t care what Israel called itself.

Netanyahu made another recent attempt to be more descriptive, concurrent with U.S. efforts to relaunch “direct” Israeli-Palestinian talks with U.S. participation, in September. In a teleconference call with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations [as we reported on our sister blog here], Netanyahu said that this “would be a central part of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. ‘Just say it’, Netanyahu called on Abbas. ‘Say yes to a Jewish state’. The prime minister explained that he was insisting on this because ‘this is a move the Palestinians have refused to make for 62 years. Its significance is Palestinian recognition of the right of the Jewish people to self-definition in their historic homeland. I recognized the Palestinians’ right to self-definition, so they must do the same for the Jewish people’.”

YNet reported last week that “The Prime Minister’s Office said the matter should have no bearing on the peace talks with the Palestinians, since Israel’s first prerequisite in the negotiations is for recognition as the Jewish state”. This is reported here.

Palestinians have, of course, already accepted Israel as a Jewish State when Yasser Arafat issued the Declaration of Independence of the Palestinian State in November 1988, then more explicitly [at U.S. insistence] at a UN meeting and then press conference in Geneva in December 1988. In these events, Arafat [with the endorsement of the PLO’s Palestine National Council] accepted UN General Assembly resolution 181 of 29 November 1947, which — at Britain’s request for the newly-created UN to decide on the disposition of the British mandate of Palestine awarded by the UN’s predecessor, the Geneva-based League of Nations — divided Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish.

The Palestinians, however, seem to have forgotten…

Today, at the start of the regular weekly cabinet session, Netanyahu linked the argument back to the controversial Citizenship oath he has backed, saying: “Today, the Cabinet will discuss an amendment to the Citizenship Law, to the effect that anyone seeking to become a naturalized Israeli citizen will declare the he or she will be a loyal citizen of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. In 1896, Theodor (Binyamin Zeev) Herzl wrote: ‘The Jews who are seeking a state will have a state. Finally, we will live as free people on our own land’. Fifty-one years later, on the eve of independence, David Ben-Gurion wrote: ‘The state that will be established will be Jewish in its purpose, designation and objective; not a state of those Jews who reside in the country but a state for the Jews, for the Jewish People’. Our Declaration of Independence says: ‘We hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel, to be known as the state of Israel”

[There was no mention of Israel being a democratic state in 1948 — the democratic system was not universal at the time, nor was it until the end of the Cold War in 1989 + 1990…]

Netanyahu continued today: “In 1992, the Knesset – in Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty – determined: ‘The purpose of this Basic Law is to protect human dignity and liberty, in order to establish in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state’.

[This was the first official declaration of Israel being a democratic state…]

Netanyahu then told the Cabinet today: “This is the essence of the Zionist vision, of the Declaration of Independence and of the structure of administration in Israel. The State of Israel is the national state of the Jewish People and is a democratic state in which all its citizens – Jewish and non-Jewish – enjoy fully equal rights. To my regret, today, there are those who are trying to blur not only the unique connection between the Jewish People and its homeland, but also the connection between the Jewish People and its state. Democracy is the soul of Israel and we cannot do without it. No one can preach democracy or enlightenment to us. Zionism established an exemplary national state, a state that balances between the national needs of our people and the individual rights or every citizen in the country. There is no other democracy in the Middle East. There is no other Jewish state in the world. The combination of these two lofty values expresses the foundation of our national life and anyone who would like to join us needs to recognize this”.

Following a lengthy cabinet debate and a vote which adopted this amendment, there was reaction: some of it revolved more around the question about Israel being democratic than about its being Jewish…

Haaretz reported that “Leader of the opposition and Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni condemned on Sunday the cabinet’s approval of a controversial amendment to the Citizenship Law requiring non-Jews seeking citizenship to pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. ‘What we have seen today is politics at its worst. The sensitive issue of Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state has become subject to political horse-trading. It is essential that we maintain Israel’s status as a Jewish state with equal rights for all its citizens. This proposal contributes nothing to this goal. On the contrary, it will cause internal conflict and damage [Israel’s image in the world]’.” This is posted here.

At a demonstration in Tel Aviv, Haaretz reported in another article, “Actress Hana Maron read from the Declaration of Independence: ‘I will read this again: “[the state of Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”. This makes me want to cry. What has become of us?’ said Maron”. This is posted here.

Earlier, Haaretz reported that “The divided cabinet spent hours deliberating Justice Minister Ya’akov Ne’eman’s proposed amendment to the Law of Citizenship ahead of the vote, including a proposal by Ne’eman himself that the pledge apply to Jews and non-Jews alike. Defense Minister and Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak warned earlier Sunday that he would vote against the amendment unless the cabinet agreed to include in the draft an allusion to Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Neither of those amendments was included in the final draft passed by cabinet … Netanyahu’s Labor coalition partners believe that his support for the loyalty oath is a sop to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, aimed at winning his Yisrael Beiteinu party’s support for an extension on a settlement construction freeze that expired late last month”. This was published here.

And, Ben Gurion University’s Professor Yoram Meital [Middle East Studies Department] wrote elsewhere in Haaretz that: “Legal and diplomatic recognition of the state of Israel is a necessary condition upon which a peace agreement with an Arab side is predicated. The national and cultural identity of Israeli society is an internal matter. Of course, that the Israeli consensus identifies the state’s identity as Jewish is legitimate; yet a demand that the Palestinian side recognize Israel as a Jewish state is immaterial to the forging of a peace agreement. The demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict generally, and, in particular, the demand’s issuance in talks about a final-status agreement, is significant on three levels. The first is the negation of the legitimacy of Palestinian claims about their historic rights to their homeland, or at least to the main part of it. For Mahmoud Abbas, accepting Netanyahu’s demand would be tantamount to the erasure of memories of the 1948 Palestinian Nakba catastrophe and of the Palestinian narrative concerning the 1948 War of Independence. The second level pertains to the raising of Israel’s demand in the context of diplomatic negotiations. The demand repeals the Palestinians’ stance regarding their sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem, particularly Haram al-Sharif, the Temple Mount. Is it conceivable that after demanding recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, Netanyahu would compromise about control over the compound within which Israel’s most sacred professions of faith are enclosed? Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state eliminates the possibility of attaining an agreement on the vexing question of refugees. The third level involves the hard message Netanyahu’s demand delivers to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, an alienating message that overlooks their bonds to their historic homeland. Over the past decade, the Jewish majority’s insensitivity toward this minority’s historic and national identity, as part of the Palestinian people, has grown considerably. The events of October 2000 constitute a turning point in the way Palestinian citizens of Israel perceive the state, and the way the majority views these citizens. Surely, direct and indirect support for the demand making citizenship contingent upon loyalty oaths is not displayed exclusively by the Yisrael Beiteinu party. Diplomatic negotiations are fragile from the start. Persistence about the demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state is liable to forestall any progress in the talks and could reinforce the perception that the Palestinians’ refusal to accept Netanyahu’s demand removes, as it were, their masks and exposes their true intentions. That sounds like a troubling echo of the unfounded narrative that circulated in Israel in the aftermath of the Camp David summit failure 10 years ago”. This comment is posted here.

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