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FP: Should The Palestinians Recognize Israel As A Jewish State?

May 25, 2011

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In this piece for Foreign Policy, Senior Research Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine Hussein Ibish looks at the Palestinians concerns about recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, specifically in response to Prime Minister Netanyahu's increasing demand for Israel's recognition as a prerequisite to peace.

Following his re-election in 2009, Netanyahu has increasingly made this demand a mainstay. Indeed, he and his supporters now say it is not only crucial, but that it is the only real issue, even though it was never raised during most of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, including during his first term as prime minister.

The idea that a state -- or in this case a potential state -- should participate in defining the national character of another is highly unusual, if not unique, in international relations. The Palestinian position, stated many times by President Mahmoud Abbas, is that the PLO recognizes Israel, and that Israel is free to define itself however it chooses.

There are several crucial concerns that make Palestinian acceptance of this new demand, particularly as a prerequisite to further negotiations, extremely difficult.

Apart from strongly feeling that they have already met all reasonable demands that could be imposed on them in regard to recognizing Israel without a reciprocal recognition of an independent Palestine, Palestinian leaders worry about the ways in which this could prejudice some key final-status issues, notably refugees. Palestinian leaders are well aware that a wide-scale implementation of the right of refugees to return to Israel is a nonstarter from Israel's perspective. It's also, however, the most politically challenging issue any Palestinian leadership will have to sell to its constituency to win support for an end-of-conflict agreement; refugee return is both a right clearly enshrined in international law and one of the principal themes of the Palestinian national narrative. It is one of the few major cards the Palestinians have left to play, and, while it is reasonable to urge them to work harder to prepare their public for the necessary concessions, it is not reasonable to ask them to compromise it away before an overall agreement is concluded.

While the Palestinians clearly accept the logic of two states, and have always acknowledged a final-status agreement will involve an end of claims between the parties, they reasonably feel that asking them to formally endorse language about Israel's character as a Jewish state might prejudice leverage they could get on other crucial final-status issues from compromises on refugee return. Most serious observers have long understood that the issue of Jerusalem is the analogous problem on the Israeli side, and that no matter how much Israeli leaders and their public do not like it, no Palestinian leadership will accept an agreement that does not base the Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. Therefore, the refugee issue is widely seen as the best, and perhaps the only, leverage the Palestinians have to get the Israelis to make their own most painful compromise on the future of Jerusalem.

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