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Will Israel’s demand for ‘Jewish state’ acceptance legitimize apartheid?

Nile Bowie
Nile Bowie is an independent writer and current affairs commentator based in Singapore. Originally from New York City, he has lived in the Asia-Pacific region for nearly a decade and was previously a columnist with the Malaysian Reserve newspaper, in addition to working actively in non-governmental organisations and creative industries. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.
Will Israel’s demand for ‘Jewish state’ acceptance legitimize apartheid?
A lasting peace agreement between Israel and Palestine will forever be hypothetical as long as ethnic Arabs are forced to acquiesce to punishing structures of discrimination as part of the Obama administration’s new framework for peace.

In the two decades since the historic, but unrealized, Oslo agreement, the Palestinian leadership under the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has consistently met Israeli demands. The promise that a permanent Palestinian settlement based on UN resolutions 242 and 338 would be founded, and that Israel would withdraw to pre-1967 borders, looks as distant today as it was in 1993.

Palestinians were told to renounce violence and recognize the state of Israel, which effectively amounted to relinquishing Palestinian claims on a full 78 percent of their country, in exchange for Israel merely recognizing the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

The historic and overwhelming compromise of the Palestinian leadership has met all equitable demands that could be imposed on them with regard to recognizing Israel without being reciprocally recognized as an independent Palestine. Aside from being strong-armed into making punishing – even humiliating – diplomatic compromises, the Palestinian people have endured an occupation that displays a callous disregard for human life by killing thousands of Palestinian civilians, including children, in Gaza and the occupied West Bank with near total impunity.

Israeli leaders have come and gone since the 1967 war, and nearly every US president has unsuccessfully tried his hand at sealing a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The political ascent of US President Barack Obama was broadly perceived to be a turning point by dispirited Palestinians; they hoped that a man who once compared the fate of the Palestinians with that of African-Americans would be able to ease their plight with some modicum of justice.

Since Obama came to office, American aid to Israel has increased as settlement construction reached all-time highs, while Washington rejected Palestine’s successful move to upgrade its status at the United Nations to a non-member state. Obama lent his support to Israel in opposing Palestine’s application to UNESCO, the UN's cultural and scientific body, and cut funding to the Palestinian Authority when the bid was successful. Palestinians have come to know better after six years of Obama, and there is a broad realization that the best deal he can broker entails total Palestinian submission. Washington’s support for the two-state solution comes not from a commitment to seeking a just solution for the Palestinian people, but from the mounting political liability of further condoning intransigent and blatantly illegal Israeli policies.

Israeli soldiers scuffle with a Palestinian protester in the center of the West Bank city of Hebron, on February 21, 2014 (AFP Photo / Hazen Bader)

Endorsing a false historical narrative

Amid the ongoing attempts by Washington to broker a new framework for peace, PM Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to capitulate on an issue with troubling legal, religious, historical and social implications: a demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a ‘Jewish state’. Netanyahu, with obsessive zeal, repeated his calls for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and to "abandon the fantasy" of refugees returning to Israel during a speech at a recent AIPAC conference.

After decades of painful compromises, the Palestinian leadership refuses to yield to Israeli demands to recognize it as a Jewish state primarily because doing so differentiates between recognition of a fact – that Israel has a Jewish majority – and the recognition of a fundamentally Zionist narrative that Israel has a right to a state for the Jewish people in historic Palestine.

Palestinians cannot accept this demand for philosophical reasons, which necessitates a broad denial of Palestine’s historical annexation to ease the security concerns of Israel, an expectation that is both humiliating and demoralizing for a people who have undergone more than a half-century of ethnic cleansing.

The Palestinian leadership also has pragmatic concerns, as such recognition would imply Palestinian acceptance of a subordinate status of Israel’s 1.7 million Muslim, Christian, and Druze citizens.

There are palpable fears that by recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, non-Jewish citizens – 20 percent of the population of Israel – would be legally regarded as second-class citizens or stripped of their citizenship and democratic rights. Palestinians have based their acceptance of an Israeli state on the condition that Palestinians retain the "right to return" to claim the property they or their forebears were forced to leave due to Israeli annexation, a principle of international law codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that would be ostensibly rejected if Israel is recognized as a Jewish state.

Policies to safeguard the ‘Jewish character’ of the state have been meted out in recent times, culminating in the deportation of tens of thousands of African asylum seekers, cases where Israel's Health Ministry has admitted to subjecting Ethiopian Jewish women with forced injections of contraceptive drugs, and DNA tests to verify the Jewish ancestry of its potential residents.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (AFP Photo / Abbas Momani)

What peace process?

Israel’s demand to be recognized as a Jewish state is intended to institutionalize policies that discriminate against citizens on an ethnic basis, in sharp contrast to the internationally-endorsed narrative of the country as a civil, democratic, and pluralistic state whose official religion is Judaism, and whose majority is Jewish. There is also a lack of practical clarification from the Israeli government as to what a Jewish state would look like regarding the status of the Arab minority, non-Jews rights to land and property, and questions related to ethnic non-Jews converting to Judaism.

It should be noted that pioneering Zionist thinkers avoided the ‘Jewish state’ term in favor of a ‘Jewish homeland’ that could be reconciled with the concept of a democratic bi-national state; the term ‘Jewish state’ itself has become embedded in pro-Israel consciousness, gaining popularity in the Zionist lexicon in recent years.

The insistence that the Palestinian side endorse the term has proven its usefulness as a spin instrument that allows the Israelis to prolong the negotiation process. Provided that Israel is perceived to be cooperating with international efforts to settle the conflict diplomatically, leaders in Tel Aviv benefit as political pressure from abroad is eased, allowing a dubious status quo to be maintained.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is soon expected to present a framework peace agreement, which will likely propose borders along pre-1967 lines with land swaps that enable the Israelis to keep settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem; Netanyahu talks openly about his government’s intentions to annex 13 percent of the West Bank. Israel is reluctant to remove its forces from the Jordan Valley, so Palestinian President Abbas has agreed to an American-led NATO presence in a future Palestinian state to ease Israeli security concerns, and has agreed to a gradual reduction of Israeli military presence and settlements in the West Bank for up to five years after a peace agreement is signed, which amounts to astonishing concessions in Israel’s favor.

According to diplomatic leaks, John Kerry’s proposal will call on Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state irrespective of Abbas’s staunch opposition. Arab League states have recently backed the Palestinian position, calling it a deviation from an agreed-upon framework for peace talks, noting how this demand was not included in peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan.

Palestinians are entirely justified in their rejection of formally endorsing language about Israel's character as a Jewish state that would hinder their leverage on other final-status issues that have been crucial to the Palestinian struggle.

The occupation of Palestine is a historical anomaly that could have only taken place with the blanket support of the United States, and as Washington attempts to pass itself off as an impartial peace broker, there is no just peace in sight, only Palestine’s surrender.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.