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Why won’t Abbas accept a ‘Jewish state’?
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Why won’t Abbas accept a ‘Jewish state’?

Is Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people essential to sealing a peace agreement or a poison pill to avoid one? Is Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to give that recognition a matter of principle or a calculated effort to scuttle the peace talks?

The answers are not simple. Each leader has very good reasons for taking the position he does while at the same time raising doubts about his intentions.

Secretary of State John Kerry had backed Netanyahu’s position, repeatedly urging the Palestinians to follow the example of the United States and many other countries in recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. But last week in congressional testimony Kerry seemed suddenly to shift directions.

It was clear he had Netanyahu in mind when he said, “I think it’s a mistake for some people to be raising it [the Jewish state question] again and again as the critical decider of their attitude toward the possibility of a state and peace.”

Kerry also pointed out that “‘Jewish state’ was resolved in 1947 in [UN] resolution 181, where there are more than 30 mentions of ‘Jewish state.’” The Balfour Declaration called for the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, and that was reaffirmed in 1922 by the League of Nations.

Netanyahu wasn’t the first to raise the subject. His chief negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, raised the issue in 2007 at the Annapolis conference when she was foreign minister in the Olmert government. However, no previous prime minister, not even Menachem Begin, made it a condition for peace with Egypt, Jordan, or the Palestinians. Does Netanyahu see this issue as a way to counter Palestinian claims of a “right of return,” or a way to put his own stamp on the negotiations?

Netanyahu said it is not enough that the Palestinians sign a peace treaty with Israel and renounce all future claims; they must specifically accept the right of the Jews to a state of their own. “We won’t allow the establishment of a Palestinian state so that it will continue the conflict, so it needs to recognize the state of the Jews just like they are demanding from us that we recognize the state of the Palestinians,” he said.

Ari Shavit, author of My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, agrees. He said, “Each side must recognize the other’s nationhood. It is the symmetry of each side acknowledging what it had long denied, each other’s claims to the land; Israel recognizing the Palestinians’ right to a state of their own and Palestinians recognizing the right of Jews to their own state.”

Many Israelis and Diaspora Jews are discomfited by Netanyahu’s demand. They feel it wrongly makes the Jewish religion and culture definitive characteristics of the state and enhances the power of the nation’s influential religious establishment and its drive to dominate civil affairs.

Conversely, for many Israelis and their supporters, the willingness of the Palestinians to acknowledge a “Jewish state” is a deeply felt emotional issue, a form of acceptance that goes beyond the recognition of a political entity. They say it is the difference between acknowledging the “existence” of Israel and affirming its “right to exist.”

Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl explained why the question is essential for Netanyahu and his followers. “Arab leaders have never conceded that a non-Arab state can hold a permanent place in the Middle East, they say,” wrote Diehl. “Until they do so, there will be no real peace, because Palestinians will keep pressing to weaken and eventually eliminate Israel’s Jewish majority.”

Abbas adamantly refuses to recognize Israel as the Jewish state. There’s “no way” he’ll agree, he has repeatedly said.

He sees agreeing to Netanyahu’s demand as abandonment of the refugees and relegating Israeli Arabs to second-class, outsider status within their country.

What’s more, he adds, Palestinians recognized Israel in the 1993 Oslo Accords and that hasn’t changed, while any peace agreement will include acknowledgement of an end to the conflict and to all claims.

He overlooks one very important fact that was just brought to light in the past week. Yasser Arafat, Abbas’s mentor and predecessor and the father of the Palestinian national movement, unequivocally recognized Israel as the Jewish state more than 25 years ago.

Tablet magazine posted a newly rediscovered video of Arafat saying, in English, “The Palestine National Council…said clearly there are two states in Palestine, a Palestinian state and a Jewish state.”

And he repeated it in a 2004 interview with Ha’aretz when asked whether Israel should continue to be a Jewish state. “Definitely,” he responded. “Definitely.”

That gives Abbas the cover he needs — he can always hide behind Arafat — if he wants it. In the words of Shavit, “What Arafat permitted, Abbas cannot forbid.” But he may have climbed so far out on that limb of refusal he can’t see a way down.

Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, suggests, “Perhaps Abbas’ refusal is tactical — an attempt to extract concessions from Israel in exchange for saying the same words Arafat uttered years ago.”

Thus Netanyahu and Abbas each has a way out of the impasse: Yasser Arafat. Netanyahu can claim Arafat set the precedent and he only asks Abbas to reaffirm it, and Abbas can put all the responsibility on his predecessor and say he is not doing anything new.

The off ramp is there, if anyone wants to use it.

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