Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state has assumed center stage in recent days. The Palestinians have repeatedly refused, insisting that their official recognition of Israel without reference to the Jewish character of the state is sufficient.
Although the Obama administration is aggressively pursuing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has thrown it not even a bone: In Washington on March 20, he told President Obama to his face that the Palestinians will not accept Israel as a Jewish state. The Arab League echoed that rejection this week.
Mr. Abbas also told Mr. Obama that there could be no compromise on what Palestinians call the “right of return” — the repatriation to Israel, rather than to a Palestinian state, of the Palestinian refugees of the 1948-49 war and their millions of descendants. He also repudiated the idea that a signed peace settlement with Israel would mark an end to further claims and conflict.
This result was only to be expected. American pressure on the Palestinian Authority has never been tried, even though the Obama administration was thought to be in accord with Israel on the necessity of such recognition and seeking Palestinian agreement behind the scenes. It turned out recently that this, too, is absent.
On March 13, Secretary of State John F. Kerry told Congress that Israel’s assertion of this requirement was a “mistake.” So much for American pressure and “having Israel’s back,” as Mr. Obama is wont to say, on a vital issue going to the heart of peacemaking.
Why does Israel insist on recognition as the Jewish nation-state? Why do Palestinians refuse it? Why is the Obama administration seeking to discard it as an irrelevancy?
The Israelis insist on, and the Palestinians refuse, recognition of a Jewish state because the leitmotif of the Palestinian movement has been the denial of any Jewish national rights in a state of any dimensions in the territory of the former British Mandate of Palestine.
Mr. Kerry has repudiated the importance of this history by claiming that another, countervailing one overlays it. He contends the Jewish state was “sufficiently addressed” by the 1947 United Nations General Assembly partition resolution, which recommended the establishment of independent Arab and Jewish states in the British Palestine Mandate. Also, then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat “confirmed that he agreed it [Israel] would be a Jewish state” in statements supposedly accepting Israel in 1988 and in 2004.
None of this holds water.
First, the 1947 U.N. partition plan was rejected by the Palestinians and never implemented. Recognition of a Jewish state from the Palestinians is thus outstanding.
Second, Arafat did not accept Israel as a Jewish state in 1988; he merely summarized the text of the 1947 U.N. partition plan — a ploy that was rejected at the time as disingenuous by both Israel and the United States. In 2004, in the midst of a terrorist war against Israel waged at his direction, Arafat merely uttered these words, outside any diplomatic context, to two left-wing Israeli journalists — scarcely proof positive of a Copernican revolution in Palestinian thinking.
(Incidentally, the two Israeli journalists described Arafat’s 2004 statement at the time as being “the first time Arafat has said he recognizes the state’s Jewish character” — indicating that even these two proponents of the theory of an Arafat 2004 conversion didn’t think much of Arafat’s 1988 words, upon which Mr. Kerry now places such emphasis.)
As we have since learned, an Israel that remains a Jewish state is precisely what the Palestinians do not accept. The Palestinian leadership from Mr. Abbas on down started being insistent on this point ever since they were quizzed about it years ago. As Mr. Abbas once put it, “I say this clearly: I do not accept the Jewish state, call it what you will.”
Moreover, even the current, official Palestinian Authority recognition of Israel is meaningless because not a single Palestinian group, including Mr. Abbas‘ Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority, pretends to have done even that.
As Mr. Abbas has said, “It is not required of Hamas, or of Fatah, or of the Popular Front to recognize Israel,” or, as Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan stated it in the negative, “We demand of the Hamas movement not to recognize Israel, because the Fatah movement does not recognize Israel, even today.”
Yet Mr. Kerry ignores the elephant in the room, something he has done before in his belief that he can pull off an elusive Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
Thus, last year, Mr. Kerry promised the Palestinians that Israel would free jailed Arab-Israeli terrorists, even though Israel had given him no such undertaking. Now that unauthorized commitment has come back to haunt him — either he gets the Israelis to do what they never promised, or he gets the Palestinians to relent on a commitment they have repeatedly claimed in his presence that he himself gave them.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians are insulated from the choices that alone could produce peace. In short, the situation is a mess, not the sort of performance that ranks as professional diplomacy.
Daniel Mandel is a fellow in history at Melbourne University and director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Middle East Policy.