There’s an old Jewish saying that no one can dance at two weddings at the same time. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, might take heed of the saying.
In late December 2013, Abbas, in responding to the proposals of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for negotiating the Arab-Israeli conflict, is reported to have rejected the Israeli stipulation that Israel be recognized as “a Jewish state.”
Whatever Abbas’ own interpretation of the term “a Jewish state,” he is apparently unaware that the concept has been long recognized by the international community. It may be tiresome to go back to square one of a disputed issue, yet it is vital to make the historical background clear and relevant.
In the Balfour Declaration of Nov. 2, 1917, the British Government viewed with favor “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The League of Nations Mandate for Palestine given to Britain on July 24, 1922 repeated this in exactly the same language.
These two particular documents might be called the engagement parties, for which Abbas has little enthusiasm. However, he danced at the belated wedding reception of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of Nov. 29, 1947 adopted by a vote of 33 with 13 against, 10 abstentions, and one absent.
Abbas has apparently forgotten that Resolution 181, which the Arab states and Palestinians rejected, called for the partition of the area into two states. It resolved, “Independent Arab and Jewish States, and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem shall come into existence in Palestine.”
The Arabs of course did not establish their state, but the Jewish community of Eretz Israel and the Zionist movement did establish their state, which the United Nations had referred to as a Jewish state.
In Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948, the People’s Council, “by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the UN General Assembly (181),” declared the establishment of “a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” The reference to Israel as a “Jewish State” is integral to its very creation as a sovereign state, based on the right of self-determination.
On Sept. 23, 2011, Abbas submitted the application “of the state of Palestine” for admission to membership in the United Nations. Borrowing language used by the Zionist leaders in 1948, he submitted the application based “on the Palestinian people’s natural, legal, and historic rights.” But more important, he based his claim on the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181.
If Abbas sincerely wants a peaceful settlement with that state he should acknowledge its self-definition and the definition in Resolution 181 on which he bases his claim for a Palestinian state. Abbas can’t dance at two weddings at the same time, nor can have his cake and eat it. If he is declaring a Palestinian state based on Resolution 181, he must acknowledge the Jewish state called for in the Resolution.
It is unclear why Abbas has made the “Jewish State” matter such an important issue. It may be simply a device to prevent negotiations ever starting, let alone being concluded. Or it could, as some Palestinian commentators have asserted, be based on the fallacious supposition that declaring Israel a “Jewish State” will disenfranchise the 1.6 million Israeli Arabs.
One can agree that those Arabs do not play as prominent a role in Israeli life as do their Jewish counterparts, and that changes need to be made, but it is wholly misleading and dishonest to suggest they are second-class citizens who play no role in Israeli society. Whether Muslim or Christian, Israeli Arabs are completely free to practice their religions. Jewish religion and culture and tradition are not imposed on non-Jews. Has Abbas noticed that the deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset is Ahmed Tibi, founder of the Arab Movement for Change Party?
There are also disputes about the history of the land. Palestinians are unwilling to accept the 3,000-year Jewish association with the land, or that David established the kingdom of Israel.
There are really only two issues that prevent Abbas from being more forthcoming. One is the problem, now 65 years old, of the Palestinians who in 1948-49 fled the area of what is now Israel. Abbas still holds that these refugees have a “right to return” to their former homes. Objectively, it is difficult to accept that grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who fled have such a “right.” Nevertheless, Abbas worries that “right” will be abrogated if he accepts Israel as a Jewish state.
Even more important is the existential issue. The question of future borders of any future Palestinian state and the status of East Jerusalem are difficult to resolve but they are less important than the Arab refusal to accept the legitimacy of the state of Israel.
In his application to the UN in September 2011, Abbas wrote of the “vision of two states living side by side in peace and security.” It is now up to him to try to implement this vision as he enters into the negotiating process with Israel.