Recognising Israel as a Jewish state? Mainstream Palestinian leaders refuse to do so

Published: 8 December 2008
Briefing Number 226

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Summary: The leaders of the ‘pragmatic' wing of the Palestinians refuse to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. We provide quotes from Mahmoud Abbas, Salam Fayyad, Saeb Erekat, Ahmed Qurei and Yasser Abed Rabbo. As we show, the Israeli Arab leadership have the same attitude. This approach totally undermines a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians: yet few even mention the issue when analysing how to achieve a two-state solution.

Israel is the national state of the Jewish people.

But the leaders of the ‘moderate' or ‘pragmatic' wing of Palestinian society refuse to acknowledge this basic fact.

They are willing to acknowledge that Israel is a country in which Jewish people live (see the statement of Mahmoud Abbas below).

But they will not recognise that Jews have national rights. As we show below, they repeatedly declare that under no circumstances will they recognise Israel as a Jewish state.

At the same time, they vigorously demand the creation of a Palestinian state. Palestinians would of course have national rights in that country.

The following quotes are from leading ‘moderate' Palestinians, and demonstrate this mindset:-

Salam Fayyad
Palestinian Prime Minister

“ Israel can define itself however it sees fit; and if it wishes to call itself a Jewish state, so be it. But the Palestinians will never acknowledge Israel 's Jewish identity….”

- from an interview with satellite station al-Arabiya , quoted by the Jerusalem Post, 15 November 2007

Ahmed Qurei
Chief Palestinian negotiator in the Annapolis process

“Recognising Israel as a Jewish state is absolutely refused….”

Palestine Media Center ( ), 1 December 2007

Saeb Erekat
Head of the PLO Negotiations Department

“We will not agree to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. There is no country in the world where religious and national identities are intertwined”

- Palestine Media Center ( ), 1 December 2007

Yasser Abed Rabbo
Secretary-General of the PLO's Executive Committee

“It is only a Zionist party which deals with Israel as a Jewish state, and we did not request to be a member of the international Zionism movement….. The issue of recognising Israel as a Jewish state is not on the negotiating table; it is raised for internal (Israeli) consumption only…..”

- Palestine Media Center ( ), 1 December 2007

Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian President, and head of the Palestinian Authority

“Historically, there are two states – Israel and Palestinian. Israel has Jews and other people, and this we are ready to recognise, but nothing else”

- Abbas made this statement during a trip to Saudi Arabia (reported by Associated Press, 1 December 2007 )

The views above are echoed by influential voices among Arabs living inside Israel :

The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee
The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, a voice for Israeli Arabs, voted unanimously to reject an Israeli request that the Palestinian Authority recognise Israel as a “Jewish state”. Such recognition would “hinder the realisation of the Palestinian refugees' right of return…..”

- Reported on Israeli National News, 18 November 2007

Michel Sabbah
Latin Patriarch for Jerusalem , and top Roman Catholic clergyman in the city

In his annual press conference taking place before Christmas, Sabbah said that Israel should abandon its Jewish character in favour of a “political, normal state for Christians, Muslims and Jews”. He also said that “if there's a state for one religion, other religions are naturally discriminated against….”

- Reported by the Associated Press, 19 December 2007.

These statements and the two-state solution

These statements were made around the Annapolis conference of November 2007. At the time, Israeli officials were so taken aback, there were suggestions that the Annapolis process could be suspended. But in the event, Annapolis and the talks which followed went ahead anyway. Israeli politicians said nothing about the issue for over a year. But the Annapolis process has not reached a conclusion, and Israelis are once more expressing alarm:-

“Palestinians have consistently refused to acknowledge that Israel is the national state of the Jewish people and should be recognised as such, even as they are claiming the future state of Palestine as their national state. There is a problem there that needs to be sorted out”

- Yigal Palmor, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, reported in the Jerusalem Post, 19 November 2008

The arguments of Palestinians against recognising Israel as a Jewish state:

“Judaism is a religion not a nationality” – this is not the case. Judaism is a distinct identity – of the Jewish people. It is shared by religious and non-religious Jews alike.

“No state defines itself by religion” – firstly, Judaism is not just a religion, and secondly this is in any case also plainly untrue. There are dozens of ‘Islamic' states, which define themselves as such.

“Recognising Israel requires us to be Zionists” - this is untrue. It is possible to respect the national rights and aspirations of another people, without fulfilling those rights yourself. Most Israelis now recognise the Palestinian right to a state – it does not make them into Palestinian nationalists. Most Norwegian people recognise the rights of the Swedish people to a state. That does not make the Norwegians into Swedish nationalists.

Recognising Israel as a Jewish state, and the Palestinian ‘right of return'

The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee explained that one reason they opposed recognising Israel as a Jewish state is that it hinder the fulfilment of the Palestinian ‘right of return' into Israel . In other words, they consider that Palestinian Arabs should have an equal right to Jews to live in Israel . This stance provides strong proof that the Arabs have not relinquished the desire for a massive ‘right of return' into Israel at some point in the future.

Key messages

A two-state solution is based on a fundamental premise – that a Jewish state would coexist side-by-side with a Palestinian state. Jews would have national rights in the Jewish state, and Palestinians would have national rights in their state.

Under the two-state solution, Jews from outside could migrate into the Jewish State. Palestinians from outside the territories could migrate into the future Palestinian state.

The above quotes make clear that the moderate wing of the Palestinians – the wing with whom Israel is supposed to cut a deal – do not accept this fundamental premise. They want something for the Palestinian state – recognition - which they deny to the Jewish state.

Most Western diplomats and politicians assume that the moderate wing of the Palestinians accept a two-state solution. This assumption ignores the facts set out in this Briefing.

Related Beyond Images Briefings:

“Five foundations of Israel 's right to exist” (Briefing 167, February 2006)

“Rejection of Israel in the Muslim world – observations by a pioneer of dialogue….” (Briefing 145, June 2005)

“Saib Erekat: The concept of a Jewish state should be left to be negotiated…..” (Briefing 90, May 2004)

“Leading Palestinian cartoonist: Israel should not exist” (Briefing 39, 2003)

“ Israel 's Law of Return: fulfilling a humanitarian mission”(Briefing 2, July 2002)

“Recognising Israel 's right to exist: actions speak louder than words” (Briefing 6, 2002)