Tuesday, 12 October 2010

What is Israel?

“By a set of curious chances,” as W S Gilbert has it in The Mikado, we seem finally to have reached the nitty-gritty of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Setting to one side all the issues that have bedeviled previous attempts at a negotiated settlement, and are undoubtedly of immense importance – like the final status of Jerusalem, or the borders of a new sovereign Palestine, or the West Bank settlements, or the future security of both states in a two-state solution – the vital issue at the very heart of the dispute has finally been revealed. The events of the past two days have demonstrated it to be, quite simply, “What is Israel?”

To the founders of the state, the answer was crystal clear, and they set it out in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence they signed on 14 May 1948 (appended to my last article: “Palestinian sovereignty hangs by a thread.”) Starting with the unequivocal statement: “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people”, the preamble traces the age-old connection of the Jewish people to the land, describes how the first Zionist Congress in 1897 proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country, and how this right was recognized in the 1917 Balfour Declaration and then re-affirmed in the Mandate of the League of Nations, which explicitly endorsed the historic connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, reaffirming the right of the Jewish people to rebuild its national home. Finally the preamble refers to the Resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations of 29 November 1947, calling for the establishment of an independent Jewish State in the Land of Israel, and requiring the inhabitants of the country to take the steps necessary to put the plan into effect.

“This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their independent State is irrevocable,” runs the preamble. “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”

So to the vast majority of Israelis, to most Jews of the diaspora, and indeed to a vast swathe of world opinion, Israel is the sovereign state of the Jewish people.

When Israel declared its independence in 1948, it offered its Arab inhabitants “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” The principle of equal rights for all its citizens was subsequently enshrined in Israeli law. In the event it is undoubtedly the case that Arabs and other minorities play a full and active role in the state, including as ministers in the government, justices of the Supreme Court, members of parliament, senior academics, ambassadors, members of the civil service and officers in the military. In practice, in almost all aspects Israel is a secular multi-racial state, where freedom of religion is respected.

However, the Palestinian Authority does not acknowledge Israel to be a Jewish state.

It was thought a few days ago that the stumbling block to resuming direct peace negotiations, as far as PA President Abbas was concerned, was Israel’s refusal to renew the freeze on building in the West Bank settlements. Following what is known to have been intensive pressure by the US administration, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in a speech at the opening of the Knesset's winter session yesterday (11 October), that he would be prepared temporarily to renew the settlement moratorium on the West Bank, in return for the recognition by the Palestinian Authority of Israel as a Jewish state. Netanyahu said that he had transmitted the message through 'quiet channels' that he was now making public – namely, that Israel was being asked to recognise a Palestinian state as the nation state of the Palestinians, and therefore Israel could expect that the Palestinians would recognise the 'Jewish state.'

The proposal was swiftly rejected. “The Palestinian Authority will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” said senior Palestinian Authority officials. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that Netanyahu’s suggestion could never be accepted, while his colleague Nabil Sha'ath added that the government in Ramallah would not tolerate a partial construction freeze and that the moratorium must also be applied in East Jerusalem. Senior Palestine Liberation Organization official Yasser Abed Rabo accused Netanyahu of using the proposal to weaken the image of US President Barack Obama in the Middle East. Rabo also said Netanyahu was begging to destroy the peace process and had made the offer to distract from deliberations on the core issues.

The US position on the status of Israel, however, is unaltered. “Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton are committed to Israel’s democracy as a Jewish state," said a State Department official.

The EU's position is that “The future states of Palestine and Israel will need to fully guarantee equality to all their citizens: basically, in the case of Israel, this means whether they are Jewish or not,' EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said, ignoring the fact that the principle of equality has been enshrined in the constitution of Israel, and indeed applied, from the start of the state – admittedly with varying degreees of success over the years. She did not add what it would mean in the case of a new Palestinian state, but clearly she is implying that any Jewish citizens of a new sovereign Palestine would need to have their basic rights protected and respected.

Behind the Palestinian’s intransigence on this issue lies the complex matter of the “right of return” of Palestinians to the family homes they occupied before the founding of the state of Israel. The PA fear is that acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state would in some way downgrade the rights of former Palestinian inhabitants. These rights would inevitably form an important element in any final peace accord, but in the event the “right of return” would probably be transmuted into some form of financial compensation, or perhaps some guarantee of development aid for those who cannot return to their previous family residences.

Israel’s fear is that the PA’s determination not to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, especially if allied to a demand for a full “right of return”, would result in a demographic submerging of the essential Jewish character of Israel, and open the way not to a two state solution, but to a unitary state.

Concessions on both sides will clearly be essential if a peace agreement is to be reached. Netanyahu has given way on extending the freeze on construction in the West Bank settlements. Perhaps the time has come for the PA to recognise that their “right of return” issue would not, in practice, be affected by acknowledging that Israel is indeed the sovereign state of the Jewish people.

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