Australia/Israel Review


Essay: Recognition Condition

Apr 18, 2011 | Tal Becker

By Tal Becker

Amid efforts to relaunch and sustain Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Israel’s claim for recognition as a Jewish State continues to generate controversy. While Israel’s leaders have insisted that such recognition is fundamental to any peace agreement, Palestinian and other Arab leaders have responded to the claim with consistent and widespread antipathy.

To begin to explore how this issue might be appropriately addressed in the context of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, we must consider the nature and legitimacy of the interests at stake and examine the alternatives for addressing them.

Recognition as a Jewish State

The term “Jewish State” is sometimes misconceived as implying an aspiration for a Jewish theocracy. Properly understood, however, the claim seeks no more and no less than public recognition of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in a state of their own. In this respect, the demand for recognition is no different from the self-determination claims advanced by many other peoples under international law.

The claim should also not be seen as an attempt to negate the corresponding Palestinian right to self-determination. Indeed, today’s advocates of recognition argue that it is Israel’s acceptance of a Palestinian nation-state that justifies parallel Palestinian acknowledgment of the Jewish nation-state.

While the demand for recognition of the Jewish homeland is at least as old as Zionism itself, the claim’s legitimacy has been the target of increasing criticism. Indeed, as efforts to delegitimise Israel’s Jewish character have intensified, many Israeli leaders have come to view international recognition as a means for not only preserving Israel’s national identity but also advancing its national security.

Historical Overview

Despite near consistent Arab opposition, Israel’s claim for recognition has historically enjoyed relatively widespread international support. From the advent of political Zionism at the turn of the 20th century, Zionist leaders engaged in efforts to acquire political recognition for restoring Jewish sovereignty and enjoyed remarkable success.

Issued in 1917 by Great Britain, the Balfour Declaration welcomed the idea of a “Jewish national home” and is known as the first political recognition of Zionist aims by a great power. Only five years later, the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine transformed the goal of “reconstituting” a Jewish nation-state from a policy preference into an international legal obligation.

In the wake of strong Arab opposition to the goals set forth in the Mandate, the international community ultimately responded not by abandoning the goal of Jewish sovereignty but by endorsing the concept of partitioning Palestine into two states – one Jewish and one Arab – a model that remains the conceptual basis for today’s two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the past decade, numerous leaders have continued to uphold the notion of Israel as a Jewish State, as evidenced by the support of US Presidents Bush and Obama, along with that of several European and international figures. Even Palestinian negotiators – including Yasser Arafat himself – have not always resisted acknowledgment of Israel’s Jewish character, and from 1988 onward they have tied the justification for Palestinian sovereignty to the partition resolution, which itself embraced parallel Jewish sovereignty.

At least in theory, it is possible that some Palestinian opposition to recognition of Israel as a Jewish nation-state relates more to the context and manner in which such recognition is formulated than to the concept itself. But to test this proposition, we must first grapple with the substantive objections that have been raised against the claim.

Palestinian, Arab, and Other Objections

An unnecessary demand. The most straightforward objection to the claim for recognition is that it is simply unnecessary. Even if theoretically legitimate, it is seen by some as complicating negotiations that are already exceedingly difficult.

Palestinian representatives are quick to point out that recognition of Israel as a Jewish state was neither demanded nor attained in Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. They argue that the Palestine Liberation Organisation had already recognised Israel’s right to exist in peace and security in 1993, and that although Israel is entitled to define its own internal character it should not seek public Palestinian recognition for this definition. These representatives are joined by some prominent Israelis who support Israel’s Jewish character but argue that seeking Palestinian recognition is either too costly or weakens Israel by suggesting that its legitimacy as a Jewish state is open to question.

In response to these considerations, supporters of recognition posit three core arguments for recognition of Jewish statehood as a necessary component of any Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

First, they argue that the refusal to accept the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, side by side with Palestinian rights, has driven the conflict and that true resolution can only come when the legitimacy of Jewish and Palestinian collective rights is acknowledged. Under this view, an agreement without such recognition elides an issue that lies at the very heart of the conflict and betrays a Palestinian unwillingness to ever genuinely bring it to an end.

Second, advocates see the most important practical manifestation of recognition in the approach it dictates to the refugee issue. Recognising the legitimacy of a Jewish state is seen as necessary to ensure that the claims of Palestinian refugees are resolved in a manner that is consistent with the model of two states for two peoples and that will not endanger Israel’s Jewish character.

Third, those who argue for recognition worry that even after an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is concluded, Israel’s Palestinian Arab minority will continue to challenge the legitimacy of the state’s internal Jewish character. Recognition is thus viewed as providing a powerful response to charges that protecting Jewish collective rights is inherently illegitimate, especially in the event of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that is widely endorsed.

The potential merit of these three arguments in favour of recognition must be balanced against the objections that have been raised regarding the consequences of such recognition for Palestinian rights and interests that may be no less legitimate.

A threat to minority rights. A common objection to the claim for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is that such a measure would necessarily undermine the rights of its non-Jewish citizens.

In practice, however, no inherent contradiction exists between recognising the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in the state in which it constitutes the majority and recognising the obligations of that state to protect its minority communities.

Minority rights are not guaranteed by denying the majority its rights to collective identity, but by balancing those rights with the legitimate rights of the minority to preserve its own distinct culture within the society. At the same time, whether or not Israel has met its obligations to its minorities – a matter of some controversy – it is important to stipulate that recognition of both Jewish and Palestinian rights to self-determination must be without prejudice to the legitimate rights of all citizens and minority groups.

Israel’s status as a democracy. A more fundamental objection emerging from the discussion of minority rights centres on the compatibility of Israel’s claim to recognition as a Jewish state with its status as a democracy. Even among those who correctly conceive of a Jewish state as the expression of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, some believe that the very idea of a Jewish nation-state runs counter to the commitment of a democratic society to uphold equality for all its citizens.

If the contention here is that only a Jewish nation-state cannot be democratic but that other such nation-states can be – including, for that matter, a Palestinian state – then the position is tainted by prejudice and does not merit attention. If, on the other hand, the contention is that no state purporting to realise the self-determination claims of a particular majority ethnic group can meet democratic standards, then the position is grounded in an arguably flawed conception of democracy.

Given that the majority of Israel’s citizens self-identify as Jewish, the expectation that Israel maintain its Jewish character arguably does not constitute a rejection of democratic principles, but rather adherence to them – provided that the state is also committed to preserving the basic rights of all its citizens and minority groups. A consideration of the similarities between Israel and other democratic nation-states amplifies this point. In countries throughout the world, a claim to democratic status does not demand of them a definition of national character solely in neutral and universal terms. Indeed, giving public expression to the collective identity of the majority, while respecting the civic equality of all citizens, is a feature common to many democracies.

The refugee issue. A further objection to the claim of recognition is that it is meant to preempt negotiations on the Palestinian refugee issue. Advocates of recognition do not conceal their view that recognition of a Jewish state is designed, at least in part, to advance the proposition that the very logic of the two-state model requires the rejection of any resolution to the refugee issue that would threaten Israel’s Jewish character.

While the principles of a two-state solution should guide the negotiators in considering how to address the refugee issue, Palestinian negotiators are unlikely to be able to contemplate express public recognition of Jewish rights to self-determination unless they know that refugee claims and their own self-determination rights have been addressed. It is for this reason, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has acknowledged, that recognition of Israel’s Jewish character should be presented by its advocates not as a precondition for negotiations but as a component of a comprehensive agreement.

Numerous other objections have been raised to the recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. However, each of these stated objections either misrepresents the recognition claim or can be adequately accommodated if recognition is appropriately formulated and presented.

The Strategic Dimension

The claim for recognition has significance outside the confines of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating room. In the broader Middle East and beyond, those opposed to a two-state solution, and to US interests in the region more generally, are arguably empowered by a refusal to accept the legitimacy of Jewish self-determination and by the failure of the international community to insist on it.

Extremist forces in particular are able to use international indifference, and increasing challenges to Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish homeland, as both a rallying cry and evidence that their radical goals are within reach. In this context, international insistence on mutual recognition of Jewish and Palestinian collective rights can be especially valuable. It enables negotiators to present recognition and reconciliation as the only effective paths to realising their own national rights while portraying their opponents as captives of a fanciful agenda pursued at the expense of national interests.

Support for recognition could also be seen as carrying a degree of moral and universal significance. While decades have passed since Israel’s establishment, the underlying rationale for supporting the Jewish people’s right to self-determination and the profound message conveyed by that support to persecuted peoples around the globe continue to have powerful moral and policy implications.

For the international community to mute its support for Jewish self-determination, or to reject the significance of some form of mutual recognition to an Israeli-Palestinian deal, may risk sending a dangerous signal about the capacity of political expedience and radical opposition to outweigh the force of moral principle.

Reconciling the Claim and Its Objections

Based on the foregoing analysis, and taking Palestinian and Arab arguments at face value, the claim to recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and its objections might be reconciled along the following lines:

The claim should be seen as seeking recognition of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in a sovereign state, rather than recognition of Israel “as a Jewish state.”

Recognition should be mutual – that is, just as Palestinians would expressly recognise the Jewish right to self-determination, so Israel would expressly recognise the Palestinian right to self-determination.

Recognition should be sought in the context of a conflict-ending agreement that includes agreement on a framework for resolving the refugee issue and on the establishment of a Palestinian nation-state alongside Israel. While the principle and rationale of the two-state framework should in practice guide the approach to resolving the issues in dispute, express recognition should not be advanced as a precondition for addressing these issues or as a way to predetermine their outcome.

Mutual recognition should be given while stipulating that this is without prejudice to the obligation to respect the human rights of each state’s citizens and minority groups.

While only the two parties can resolve the recognition issue, the international community could help facilitate agreement by affirming the need for any future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement to include acknowledgment of the respective rights of the Jewish and Palestinian people to self-determination within the parameters outlined above.

Given the precarious state of the negotiations, both parties could also consider ways to boost confidence on this and other issues by beginning to signal their readiness to address each other’s core concerns in the framework of a comprehensive agreement. On the issue of recognition, such initial gestures could include, for example, Palestinian acknowledgment of Jewish ties to the land or Israeli demographic concerns. In turn, Israel could be more forthcoming about acknowledging Palestinian suffering and parallel self-determination rights.

Ideally, an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is a critical tool for overcoming the rejection and absolutism that have fueled the conflict for decades. Such an agreement will be most likely to succeed if it is founded on a real commitment to respect and accommodate the mutual national rights of the Jewish and Palestinian people. Avoiding this issue may seem to provide the more convenient path to a written agreement, but doing so may not achieve the genuine reconciliation so needed by the Jewish and Palestinian people, and so feared by rejectionists across the region.

Dr. Tal Becker is an international associate of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He previously served as senior policy adviser to Israel’s minister of foreign affairs from 2006 to 2009 and was a lead negotiator during Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under the auspices of the Annapolis peace process. The above is excerpted from a longer monograph entitled The Claim for Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State:A Reassessment. The full report can be downloaded as a pdf at tinyurl.com/Jewishstate. © Washington Institute, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.

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