ISRAEL: The ‘Jewish state’ debate


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The new Israeli government is currently engaged in what it’s calling a ‘policy review.’ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s peace policies seemed pretty clear until the recent elections, but now his new government is consolidating its policies, which will be outlined in Netanyahu’s meeting with President Obama in May.

Meanwhile, much scrambling for diplomatic foothold is taking place. In his recent meeting with U.S. envoy George J. Mitchell, Netanyahu was said to demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The U.S. said this was not a precondition to the talks, and Netanyahu swiftly clarified that this wasn’t actually a condition for beginning talks, only for making progress in the future.


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is as much about the past as it is about the future, and both sides promptly jumped into an old argument.

The Palestinians said the U.S. had agreed to recognize the state of Israel by its given name but not as the Jewish state, referring people to the document signed by President Truman in May 1948. In the document, the phrase ‘Jewish state’ was crossed out and replaced with ‘State of Israel.’

Professor Shlomo Avineri, Hebrew University political scientist, dismisses the Palestinian position as a half-truth. The full one, he explained earlier this week over the radio, is that on the eve of Israel’s establishment, the Jewish Agency had turned to Truman and asked for U.S. recognition of the Jewish state upon its proclamation in keeping with the UN decision. The American leadership discussed the issue, and Truman’s position in favor prevailed over some disagreements.

The original document was drafted before the Jewish state had been proclaimed as Israel and says that ‘The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the new Jewish state.’ Meanwhile, the state had been proclaimed and the document amended in handwriting by Truman’s assistant, who had replaced ‘the new Jewish state’ with the ‘new state of Israel.’ (For a chronology of the U.S. and recognition of Israel, click here.)

The U.S. recognized the provisional government as the representative of the new state that was founded in keeping with the UN’s decision on the partition of Palestine into two states -- a Jewish one and an Arab one. The Arabs had rejected the partition. Avineri points out that while UN decisions often meet with disagreement, including from Israel, this is the only time in which an actual war was launched against a UN decision. Palestinian officials’ answer to this argument is that if Netanyahu agrees to return to the lines of the old UN partition plan (which outlined a smaller Israel), they’d consider recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

Arab Israeli legislator Ahmad Tibi pointed out that nowhere in the peace treaties signed with Israel were Egypt or Jordan obliged to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. True, they weren’t. But they didn’t demand the right of return for refugees, which Israel maintains will destroy it as a Jewish state. Some say this is what the conundrum is really about. Others say Netanyahu is just being difficult, introducing obstacles and promptly removing them to produce instant concessions.


Truman continues to be linked to Israel and the quest for peace: Check out the website of the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace in Jerusalem.

-- Batsheva Sobelman

Image: The U.S. document in question. Source: The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum website.