“‘We refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state”

Well, OK, then. If the Palestinian Authority sticks to this position, the current partition talks will go nowhere (like all previous iterations). The question of recognizing the character of the state is, as Ari Shavit (a self-declared leftist, by the way) put it some years ago, “the core of the conflict.”

From Haaretz on 20 December:

According to [former PA negotiator Muhammad] Shtayyeh the declaration of Israel as a Jewish state implies the prevention of Palestinian refugees from returning to their homeland, opening the door to the expulsion of Palestinian citizens of Israel from their homes and the imposition of the Jewish narrative on the history of this country, thereby rejecting the Christian and Muslim narratives.

Yes to Shtayyeh’s first point if “homeland” means within what would become the recognized borders of Israel, but no to the second. I am not aware of any but the farthest-from-the-mainstream actually advocating expulsion of Israel’s Arab citizens. On the other hand, as best I can tell, it just assumed that Jews will be expelled from the proposed Arab state of Palestine and, of course, would have no right of return (and should not have) to the part of their homeland that becomes outside the borders of Israel.

As for Shtayyeh’s “narratives” point, as far as I know, the Christian narrative–if there can be said to be one such narrative–does not deny that the land in question is the historic homeland of the Jewish people. If there is indeed a single “Muslim narrative” that denies this historic fact, then it is not an equivalently legitimate narrative.

The idea of a partition is that each of the people with competing claims to the territory being divided gets its own state. I do not see how an agreement can be signed that does not recognize each state as the state of one of those peoples. Ideally, it should also grant protection to the minority, who would be allowed to remain within the borders of the other people’s state. However, Shtayyeh may be right about one thing: a partition could open the door to migration of Arabs out of Israel (less likely to be through “expulsion” as through choice amongst perceived-to-be bad options). Most (all?) partitions are accompanied by population transfers. And that is why a partition process is not really a “peace process”. Partitions, and especially population transfers, are not typically peaceful.

Note also that Shtayyeh’s references to narratives refers to religions. Although some tendencies within the State of Israel blur the lines, the Jewish state is not about a religion, it is about a national group’s right to sovereignty–national liberation, in other words. This is not a small semantic matter, though it gets elided regularly by all those who have an agenda against the existence of an ordinary “secular” and democratic state in the ancestral home of the Jewish people.

12 thoughts on ““‘We refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state”

  1. “On the other hand, as best I can tell, it just assumed that Jews will be expelled from the proposed Arab state of Palestine and, of course, would have no right of return (and should not have) to the part of their homeland that becomes outside the borders of Israel. ”

    Is the expulsion part necessarily true? Which Arab countries have actually expelled their Jewish populations?

    There might be civil or even criminal litigation over the seizure/ confiscation of land to build settlements. Though in South Africa the government has been reluctant to press legal action that might result in seizure of white owned land even in cases where the land was acquired by questionable means even under the laws in force at the time it was acquired. But then you have the counter-example of Zimbabwe. But this is different than expulsion.

    I find it hard to come with post-World War 2 examples of expulsion other than Idi Amin and Ceauceascu. Most countries prefer their second class citizens to remain in place and practice menial labor!

    I can even see a rump Palestinian state keeping the right of return for its Jewish citizens, to make a propaganda point against Israel (especially as there would be few takers on the offer)!


  2. ” I am not aware of any but the farthest-from-the-mainstream actually advocating expulsion of Israel’s Arab citizens.” There is however a number of parties, Israel Beitenu the most prominent among them, that advocate including substantial Arab populations in teritorrial transfers with Palestine, for example the village of Umm-al-Fahem, which is very close to the Green Line.


  3. Ed, to amplify JD’s point, a majority of Israel’s Jewish population is now former refugees from Arab countries or their descendants. There were pogroms and expulsions in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and other Arab states from 1948 on. These refugees were all absorbed by the young Jewish state, unlike the Arab refugees from what became Israel, few of whom were absorbed by neighboring Arab states and many of whom remain wards of the UN who are regularly told by their “leaders” that they will “return” one day. And, yes, as both JD and I noted, there is an apparent consensus that the Arab state of Palestine would be free of Jews. I doubt many would want to stay, anyway, if the establishment of such a state became a fait accompli (although I personally know a few who claim they want to stay even in such an eventuality).

    Yes, JD, Lieberman does call for border adjustments that would incorporate predominantly Arab areas near the Green line in the north into the Arab state of Palestine (independent of whatever these people’s will might be). While this is something I personally and absolutely would not favor, it should be distinguished from population transfer, by which I mean movement of people from their homes to a new settlement.


    • Resettling the settlers in the West Bank is pretty much a prerequisite for any kind of functional Palestinian state. It might be possible to get some Palestinian leader to accept IDF defended settlements dotting the landscape, but the Palestinian people are highly unlikely to accept it and I think it’s more likely that a Jew becomes King of Saudi Arabia than the Arab powers accepting such a proposition.


      • Chris, it depends on which settlements one is referring to. If you mean hilltops scattered throughout Judea and Samaria, I agree. But one should not conflate the major settlement blocs (immediately north and south of Jerusalem, mainly) with the more distant ones. It gets tougher in the case of cities like Maale Adumim and Ariel, which are farther from the Green Line. And, especially Maale Adumim is highly unlikely to be evacuated. Like it or not, it is a large city that’s not going anywhere.

        The claims for need for contiguity are exaggerated. Even if you made Maale Adumim an island (or a new Palestinian city), it would be a challenge to have decent transportation links between Ramallah and Bethlehem that do not pass through pre-1967 Israeli sovereign territory. It is just the nature of the terrain and the original armistice lines on which an agreement is supposed to be based.

        And then there is, of course, Gaza, where the withdrawal of settlers did not exactly solve the “contiguity” problem.


      • For an alternate view on the Jewish state question, see Bernard Avoshai:

        The contradiction between “the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state” and “the right of return of Palestinians” may sound intractable. In fact, it was pretty much resolved at Taba, in January, 2001. Why resort to distracting principles when a little useful ambiguity will do?

        Unfortunately, however, Netanyahu cannot, or will not, simply leave things there. For the phrase “Jewish state” also has a third meaning, with legal ramifications dear to the heart of Israeli rightists (including old Labor Zionists in love with the saga of the settler state); laws that derive from the historical application (some would say misapplication) of neo-Zionist ideas and Ben Gurion’s rash compromises with rabbinical forces over two generations ago; laws that have left Israel a seriously compromised democracy.


  4. For what I know, many (most?) of jewish refugees from arab countries were not “expelled”; they went to Israel because they were treated as second-class citizins in arab-countires (more or less like the jews who emigrate from the Russian Empire to US in the 19th century); if anything, I have the ideia that in many case (like Yemen and Iraq) it was need some secret diplomacy for the local governments to allow the jewis to go to israel


    • Miguel, I don’t want to play semantic games, but point taken. It is more complex than the term, expulsion, might imply. However, for most of the flood of refugees from Egypt, Iraq, Libya and other countries of the region, it certainly would have felt more like an expulsion than just “let’s go to Israel because we are second class citizens here”. Jews had been officially second class citizens (dhimmi) in most Arab-populated lands for centuries, yet there is much evidence that most would have stayed had the conditions not dramatically deteriorated from them after 1948. Israel itself, in its earliest years, was not the draw for them that it was for European Jews (for obvious reasons). And the volume of the flow, relative to population, must have been far greater than that of Jews emigrating from Russia in the 19th century.

      You are right, of course, that some cases–notably Yemen–were evacuations rather than expulsions, organized under cloak of secrecy. Check out “Operation Magic Carpet”. It is an incredible story. It is also incredible that there still is a (much diminished) Jewish community in Yemen, despite all that has gone on there in recent years. I am sure it will not last long. The only Arab country with a significant Jewish community left is Morocco, but even that one is rapidly diminishing. There remains a community in Tunisia as well, but conditions are evidently worse than they were under Ben Ali.


  5. Yair Lapid says recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” is not necessary. “We are liberated” and “we recognize ourselves”, he says. As in many areas, I find Lapid’s stance on this refreshing. However, as a practical political matter, the statement I made in the first paragraph of the post is probably true.


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