When French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé recently said, “There will be no solution to the conflict in the Middle East without recognition of two nation-states for two peoples,” he was repeating a truism. But his description of the two states raised a storm — “the nation-state of Israel for the Jewish people, and the nation-state of Palestine for the Palestinian people.”
Even though his view is shared by President Obama, German Chancellor Merkel, and many other world leaders, it is anathema to Palestinians, who claim the right to a state of their own as a matter of historical justice, but will not grant the Jewish people the same right. This refusal has emerged as a major stumbling block to a renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, as even those Palestinian leaders who profess a willingness to accept the reality of Israel cannot bring themselves to call it Jewish. As chief Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath put it, “We will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state.”
Why won’t the Palestinians come to grips with a reality that has been crystal clear to the rest of the world for generations?
Israel is the fruit of the Zionist movement, launched in the late 19th century to end two millennia of exile by restoring the Jewish people to their historical homeland. The Balfour Declaration, the 1917 British document subsequently adopted by the League of Nations — and hence the first international recognition of the Zionist program — specified the goal of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. The UN partition plan of 1947 that provided the legal basis for the creation of the State of Israel called for the division of Mandatory Palestine into two states, one “Jewish” and the other “Arab.”
Israel’s Declaration of Independence, adopted May 14, 1948, announced “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” And it explicitly tied the fledgling state to the Jewish past, announcing: “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious, and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance, and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”
At the time no one disputed the obvious Jewish character of the new state. Even the Soviet Union supported its creation as an act of justice to the Jewish people, and when that country barred its Jews from emigrating, it would make some exceptions for those going to Israel, since such migration could be defined as repatriation to the Jewish national homeland.
Today, the blue-and-white star of David flag, the use of Hebrew, Saturday as the official day of rest, the annual holiday cycle, and a multitude of other cultural signifiers clearly mark Israel as a — in fact, the world’s only — Jewish state.
The objection to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state cannot be based on religious discrimination against non-Jews. While culturally and historically Jewish, Israel is not a theocracy. It is a secular state, and even in those circumscribed areas where Jewish law is officially recognized — such as family law — it affects only Jews. Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which does identify Israel with Jewish history and destiny, says that the state “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex,” a guarantee to which Israeli law has consistently adhered. The religious freedom that non-Jewish Israelis possess far surpasses that granted to Muslim and minority Christian groups elsewhere in the Middle East.
Why then are the Palestinians so adamantly set against the designation of Israel as what it is — the Jewish state? It is because Islam has never recognized the validity of any land that has once been Muslim-controlled falling into the control of non-Muslims, and because many Arabs refuse to acknowledge the Jewish historical link to the land. The Palestinian leadership still retains the hope that large numbers of its people, instead of settling in the new Palestinian state, will utilize the so-called right of return to enter Israel. This, combined with the high Arab birthrate, would presumably turn Israel into a second Palestinian state.
Israel’s determination to head off this possibility by insisting on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state makes perfect sense. And world leaders should be applauded for recognizing that peace can come only when the Palestinians — and the Arab world — give up the dream of wiping Israel, the Jewish state, off the map.