The "Jewish state" controversy returned to the headlines a couple of weeks ago. In the course of the first meeting between US emissary George Mitchell and PM Binyamin Netanyahu, both invoked the term. Netanyahu stated that Israel would not enter negotiations over creation of a Palestinian state until and unless the Palestinians declared they recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Mitchell presented the vision of Israel as a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state as the end-product of two-state negotiations.
Since then, Netanyahu has softened his stance and lined up behind Mitchell’s assertion. He now declares that it would be difficult to conclude (rather than commence) negotiations successfully without Palestinian acknowledgement of Israel’s Jewish identity. Meanwhile both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat have declared that the PLO will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state and that this is not a Palestinian obligation.
So the "Jewish state" issue is not an immediate obstacle to renewing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over a two-state solution. But it won’t go away. And Mitchell’s statement appears to guarantee ultimate US support for the Jewish state demand.
One aspect of the controversy is as old as Zionism, which asserts that the Jews are a people deserving of sovereignty in their ancient homeland. There are still plenty of Christians and Muslims in the world, and even a few Jews, who insist that Judaism is no more than a religion, not a people. Nor has the state of Israel, after 61 years of sovereign independence, yet successfully defined for itself the Jewish substance of the Jewish state, e.g., the balance between religious and secular components of Judaism or the status of non-Jewish minorities in a Jewish state.
Yet Israel’s claim to be a Jewish state is ironclad. The term first appears in UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, the founding document of the two-state solution. It calls for the creation of "Arab and Jewish states" in Mandatory Palestine. Accordingly, Israel’s Declaration of Independence of 1948 incorporated the term "Jewish state" in order to signal that the new state conformed to the will of the United Nations. In this context, PLO acceptance back in 1988 of a two-state solution based on 181 embodies Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
It was the most determined attempt thus far to solve the Palestinian issue, culminating at Camp David in July 2000, that reintroduced controversy over the term. The Israeli polity emerged from that abortive experience convinced that at least some Palestinian advocates of a two-state solution, led by Yasser Arafat, envisioned it very differently than Israelis. Arafat was suspected of seeking a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside a state of Israel that, through the natural growth of the Israeli Arab population coupled with the return of 1948 refugees and illegal migration of Palestinians, would soon become a bi-national state and would eventually be thoroughly "Palestinized".
In the post-Camp David years, Israelis focused in particular on Arafat’s emphatic demand that Israel acknowledge the "right of return" of the refugees–thereby seemingly acknowledging that it was "born in sin" in 1948, hence was illegitimate–along with his refusal to recognize Israel’s demand that a final status agreement reflect the Jewish historic and religious heritage of the Temple Mount (Arafat: "There never was a Jewish temple on the ‘Temple Mount’"). These sentiments and demands were understood as reflecting a broader Arab refusal to accept the Jews as a people with legitimate national rights and roots in the Middle East. While Israel was successful in ending its conflict with two neighboring Arab states without delving too deeply into these issues, it cannot ignore them in negotiating an end-of-conflict agreement with the PLO, lest this leave open the door to further claims upon Israel and de-legitimization of its basic character.
It was Tzipi Livni, then a junior minister in the Sharon government, who several years ago refined this thinking into a new formula for addressing the right of return issue. Harking back to 181, Livni argued that the Palestinian demand for the return of refugees must be confined to return to the Palestinian state and not Israel, lest it contradict the "Jewish state" provision of 181 that the PLO had recognized.
Erekat, incidentally, was wrong when he argued that back in 1948 even the US had refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state by striking that expression from the original American draft declaration of recognition. President Harry Truman’s aides, waiting to be informed of the name of the new state, took the term "Jewish state" directly from 181, then crossed it out at the last minute when informed that "State of Israel" had been decided on by the Jewish leadership in Palestine. Nowhere was this intended to imply that the US somehow rejected Israel as a Jewish state.
The most disturbing aspect of this controversy is that both sides "protest too much" and appear to be manipulating the Jewish state issue to avoid a serious attempt at agreement. When Abbas and Erekat seemingly reject the heart of the Israeli identity before negotiations have even begun, they risk signaling Israelis that it’s not worth the negotiating effort. Ultimately, if they don’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state yet want Israel to accept a final status agreement that puts all claims to rest, Palestinians will have to find some persuasive formula for reassuring Israel that they acknowledge the Jewish national link to the Land of Israel and do not view a two-state agreement as a vehicle for eventually undermining Israel’s Jewish nature.
On the other hand, Netanyahu has plenty of time to submit his Jewish state request once he has successfully negotiated everything else. Nor should Israel really require the explicit affirmation or involvement of its neighbors in determining its national nature. This is indeed a task for Israelis.