Is the “Jewish State” Another Obstacle to the Peace Process?

In Monday’s meeting at the White House, President Barack Obama strongly urged Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to reopen the peace process toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Obama also told Netanyahu, with surprising bluntness, "Settlements have to be stopped."
The response from Netanyahu was ambiguous. At first he said he would pursue the peace process "immediately," but speaking to journalists later, emphasized he had not endorsed an independent Palestinian state. He added that a prerequisite for any agreement was the Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a "Jewish state."
Though some scoff at it, there is no question that Palestine has officially recognized Israel’s right to exist since 1988, and which was reiterated in 1993. What has now been added to Israel’s demand is the description of the nation as a "Jewish state." The prime minister is not making this a pre-condition for negotiation but for reaching a final agreement.
The Israeli demand for its recognition as a "Jewish state" was first set forth by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the eve of the Annapolis conference hosted by the U. S. in 1997. Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, immediately rejected the demand saying it would very likely disallow the return of Palestinian refugees to homes and villages in the case of an agreement. Palestine’s President Mahmoud Abbas has recently repeated the objection.
The question inevitably arises, why does Israel want the Palestinians to affirm officially what everyone already knows? Isn’t this merely a dangerous semantic tango that creates yet another obstacle to a peace process that has long seemed doomed to failure?
Every civilized country in the world sees Israel as it defines itself. And Palestinians recognize Israel, but they have trouble officially recognizing its character as "Jewish" because they fear the immediate practical impact on refugees, borders, and their already tenuous identity.
Palestinian refugees now number over four million, and they claim a right of return to homes in what is Israel proper. The Palestinians have indicated their willingness to compromise on the "right of return," as evidenced by the Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for a "just and agreed" resolution of the refugee problem with Israel. But recognizing Israel as a "Jewish state" will be seen by Palestinians as pre-determining that outcome without getting anything in exchange.
Israel has never defined its borders. In fact, it continually expands them, through the massive growth of settlements on Palestinian land and Jewish-only roads. Palestinians reasonably fear that by recognizing Israel as a "Jewish state" without getting anything in return, they are tacitly legitimizing Israel’s continued settlement of the West Bank.
The population of Israel, including those in the occupied territories, is 50% Palestinian. Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state for Palestinians living in the occupied territory appears to legitimize what they consider their third-class citizenship in what is their homeland too (this includes Palestinian citizens of Israel).
Since Palestinians entered the Oslo peace process with Israel in 1993, they haven’t seen anything in return, except for a tripling in Israeli settlers, construction of modern Israeli-only highways, a 40% drop in Palestinian GDP, and draconian restrictions on movement. An entire generation of Palestinian children in the West Bank have never been to the sea, even though many can see it from their homes.
Israel needs peace now more than ever. Rather than focusing on the semantics of a very difficult phrase, Israel — along with the Palestinians and the international community — needs to focus on bringing a stable and just solution to both Israelis and Palestinians.
Now is not the time to create more obstacles to the peace process. If Israel negotiates a genuine peace with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors, the next generation of Israelis and Palestinians may finally look forward to hope, not more war and hatred.

Deal W. Hudson is the director of and the author of Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States (Simon and Schuster).

Deal W. Hudson


Deal W. Hudson is ​publisher and editor of The Christian Review and the host of "Church and Culture," a weekly two-hour radio show on the Ave Maria Radio Network.​ Formerly publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine for ten years, his articles and comments have been published widely in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, and U.S. News and World Report. He has also appeared on TV and radio news shows such as the O'Reilly Factor, Hannity & Colmes, NBC News, and All Things Considered on National Public Radio. Hudson worked with Karl Rove in coordinating then-Gov. George W. Bush's outreach to Catholic voters in 2000 and 2004. In October 2003, President Bush appointed him a member of the official delegation from the United States to attend the 25th anniversary celebration of John Paul II's papacy. Hudson, a former professor of philosophy for 15 years, is the editor and author of eight books. He tells the story of his conversion from Southern Baptist to Catholic in An American Conversion (Crossroad, 2003), and his latest, Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States, was published in March 2008. He is married to Theresa Carver Hudson, also a Baptist convert, and they have two children, Hannah and Cyprian who was adopted from Romania in 2001.

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