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Israel pushes Palestinians to acknowledge its Jewish character

It sounds at first like a familiar Mideast tussle: Israel demands recognition, Arabs refuse to give it.

But Israel’s recent push to be recognized as a “Jewish” state is actually a new twist on an old struggle, and one that is rapidly turning into the latest stumbling block to faltering peace talks.

Israel defines itself as a Jewish state in its declaration of independence. U.S. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush have embraced the term, which was used in the 1947 U.N. resolution calling for the establishment of two states, one Jewish and the other Palestinian Arab.

But lately, Israel has started pressing Palestinians — who recognized Israel’s right to exist in 1993 — to go one step further by also publicly acknowledging Israel’s Jewish character. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert first raised the issue and, in recent weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed suit.

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“Just say it,” Netanyahu goaded Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during a joint appearance in the U.S. recently. “Say yes to a Jewish state.”

Palestinians reject the demand as “racist,” saying it raises troubling questions about the status of Arab Israeli citizens and other non-Jews in Israel. They see it as a trap to get Palestinians to make concessions on such issues as the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel and other matters that should be determined at the negotiating table.

Abbas insists that the 1993 recognition is enough, and Palestinians should not be dragged into an internal debate about Israel’s religious or ethnic nature. “Israel can call itself the Israeli Zionist Jewish Empire,” Abbas said recently.

Some see Netanyahu’s actions as a tactical move designed to put Palestinians on the defensive, paint them as rejectionists and divert attention from Israel’s controversial settlement construction in the West Bank, which has thrown peace talks into crisis.

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“Netanyahu is raising this to create yet another condition that makes it virtually impossible to reach an agreement,” said Galia Golan, a political science professor and anti-settlement advocate at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. “It throws a monkey wrench into talks.”

Others, however, say Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state is a much more profound question, and the matter is likely to become a central issue in the peace process, equal to other so-called final-status issues: Jerusalem, borders, settlements, water rights and refugees.

“The demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state isn’t a tactic or ploy, but something deeply important,” said Yoram Meital, chairman of Ben-Gurion University’s Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy. “We thought all along there were five final-status issues. Now it turns out there’s another one. It’s really the basis for everything else.”

Since its founding, Israel has demanded and received formal recognition from its Arab peace partners, including Egypt, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which granted it under the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

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But, beginning in 2007, some Israelis began insisting that the PLO’s recognition of Israel’s “right to exist” was not enough and that some sort of endorsement of a “Jewish state” was necessary.

The adjustment stemmed from growing Israeli concerns that, even though Palestinians had accepted Israel as a state, they still might one day try to wrest control of the country through the expanding Arab Israeli minority — already one-fifth of Israel’s citizenry — and the possible influx of Palestinian refugees.

Israelis worried that, in light of the shifting demographics and the country’s democratic ideals, they’d left a giant loophole that could allow Palestinians to one day turn Israel into an Arab-dominated country. Because Palestinians want their own state in the West Bank, it was seen as a kind of political double-dipping.

Those same concerns are a driving factor behind right-wing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s proposal to redraw Israel’s borders so Arab Israeli villages would be absorbed by a future Palestinian state, thereby shrinking Israel’s Arab citizenry and reducing any threat it might pose.

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They are also among the reasons why Israel recently moved to require non-Jewish prospective citizens to take a loyalty oath to Israel as a “Jewish democratic state,” though Netanyahu said Monday that he’d amend the measure to make it apply to Jewish immigrants as well.

“This perception comes from a place of fear,” said Yitzhak Reiter, professor of Ashkelon Academic College. As a result, Israelis began seeking psychological and diplomatic assurances of Israel’s Jewish character.

“Explicit recognition that Israel is the Jewish people’s home will strengthen our willingness to take risks and leave the territories,” wrote political columnist Ari Shavit in Haaretz newspaper.

But Palestinians note that Israel’s previous peace deals with Egypt and Jordan didn’t require acceptance of Israel’s Jewish character.

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Further, they complain, there are no clear definitions of a “Jewish state.” Would Arab Israelis have an inferior status or reduced rights in a Jewish state? Would such an endorsement affect the right of return for Palestinian refugees or the division of Jerusalem?

“Would this mean they could get rid of all non-Jews from Israel?” Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath asked. “They have never explained the meaning. They are using this to just create new complications. Now, rather than discussing borders or Jerusalem, we are talking about the Jewishness of the state.”

Even Israelis don’t agree on what “Jewish state” should mean, Palestinians say. Secular Israelis worry such terminology would increase the mix of religion and state. Many Orthodox Jews, meanwhile, believe the Torah forbids the formation of a Jewish state until the arrival of the Messiah. The lack of consensus is one of the reasons Israel never drafted a constitution.

Some Palestinian leaders have expressed a willingness to consider calling Israel a Jewish state, provided the term is defined and other issues are resolved. Shaath said that if Israel is serious it should raise the issue formally during negotiations, rather than in political speeches and in the media.

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“They should bring it to the table,” he said. “But right now, they are using it to create fear and agitation.”

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Batsheva Sobelman in The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.


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