Demand for Arab Recognition of Israel as Jewish State Makes No Sense

Demand for Arab Recognition of Israel as Jewish State Makes No Sense

True confession:  I have never understood the current Israeli demand that Arab states recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.”  Unless, that is, it is meant primarily as a roadblock to any successful peace settlement. 

It is not as though I don’t take societal narratives seriously; I’ve edited two books and written a bunch of articles on their importance in this conflict.  However, I don’t think a coerced narrative is worth much, unless combined with total defeat (a la Germany and Japan in World War II).  But the only reason we have negotiations going on under the umbrella of a twenty year-old “peace process” is that both sides reluctantly recognized that total victory is not an option.

Arabs understand the demand as trying to extract a barely disguised confession that they were wrong at every point in opposing Jewish immigration, Zionism, and the establishment of the state of Israel, and I can’t see what other purpose it has.  But when, aside from total capitulation, has even a defeated enemy had to announce publicly that they were wrong from the beginning?  And does anyone believe that a Palestinian government that agreed to that could survive?  Or that those Palestinians inclined to destroy Israel would, in any way, feel themselves bound by such a confession?  Is there a way that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state could be understood other than saying that all resistance to Zionism since 1882 was politically and even morally wrong?  Is humiliation the point?  It is hard to conclude otherwise.

The official line is that if Arabs recognize Israel as a (the?) Jewish state, their otherwise unquenchable yearning to destroy Israel will be quenched, gone, finito.  Putting these magic words in a treaty will bind them securely, while other words pledging peace, exchanging ambassadors, promising trade ties, etc., can (and probably will) be repudiated at any opportunity.  Why would this obviously unwilling and meaningless formula be respected while other, more tangible and enforceable promises wouldn’t be?

What about precedents?  I have found none.  There are many other states that advertise their legitimacy in their names, e.g., the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela; great role models that Israel could emulate as the “Jewish State of Israel.”  Let Israel rename itself.  But no state, as far as I have been able to determine, has ever demanded that others, let alone its enemies, specifically recognize a particular claim to legitimacy.  Diplomatic “recognition” is intended primarily as an acceptance that a regime exercises a monopoly of organized violence within certain borders, and not even necessarily that. It is not generally an endorsement of a “right to exist,” it is a recognition of de facto existence.  As far as I can see the Israeli demand is unique.

Frankly, the demand has always struck me as a confession of weakness, of Israel as “Shimshon der Nebechdiker” (Samson the pathetic), in Levi Eshkol’s memorable phrase.  For Israel to convince itself of its own self-proclaimed identity, does it really need a Palestinian imprimatur?

In my long-held view, well preceding the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, Arab states have for the most part tacitly accepted Israel and would like to move on.  Jabotinsky was right in that Israel’s “Iron Wall’ eventually convinced them that there was nothing they could realistically do to get rid of it.  (What Jabotinsky did not foresee was that Israel would not take “yes” for an answer.) The Arab states never liked the Palestinians anyway, and once it was clear that they were not going to be able to divide up Palestine, they lost interest.  However, Palestine had become such an issue that their people wouldn’t let it go, without some credible expression that Arab and Muslim honor had been nominally satisfied and the Palestinians had some sort of state.

Israel’s existence became even less important as an issue for Arab leaders once Islamism reared its head, because that is a true danger to the Arab regimes.  Now that Iran has become the bete noir of most of the Arab world, Saudi Arabia (the current de facto leading Arab power) seems to see its interests more aligned with those of Israel than with those of the U.S., and there are(supposedly) serious discussions of a Saudi-Israeli “alliance,” which seem absurd. But Israel still believes “the Arabs” will destroy Israel at their first opportunity despite all the evidence that most Arabs (by no means all, of course) have moved on.

Ah, but the Arab world is unstable, and who knows if a promise made by one regime will be kept by its successor?  Apart from the example that one of the few things Egyptians are not fighting over is the treaty with Israel, could anyone maintain that a promise of peace would be broken but a recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would be honored?  Does that make sense?

I recognize that my bewilderment is not shared by most Jews.  There are probably more recent polls, but one in 2010 reported that 95% of American Jews felt that the demand that Arabs recognize Israel as a Jewish state is justified.  And Prime Minister Netanyahu proclaims that the “root of conflict” is refusal of that recognition.

I doubt that most Jews who want to see such recognition understand that it is one of the biggest obstacles to the possibility of peace.  I imagine that they see it as a simple tautology: Israel=Jewish state, the refusal of which could not but be the result of bad faith.  But simple and obvious things are rarely that in international disputes.  I still don’t understand why anyone who otherwise has no trust whatsoever in Arab promises would believe this one or, conversely, if you accept there is a willingness for peace, why do you need to try to grind Arab noses in the dust?

By | 2013-12-15T04:11:00-05:00 December 15th, 2013|Blog|7 Comments


  1. Robert Eisen December 15, 2013 at 3:32 pm - Reply

    Good post, but I’m not sure I agree. When Bibi says that he wants Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, I’ve always understood this to be a clumsy way of demanding that Palestinians recognize the historical claims of the Jewish people in the region–i.e., that Jews lived their a long time ago, that they are now returning, and that they now deserve to live there as a sovereign entity. And that isn’t such a radical demand. In fact, Palestinians have been asking for the same thing. The demand for a Palestinian right of return is a demand that Jews recognize the historical claim of Palestinians in the region as well. So what both sides want is the same thing, recognition of the historical claims of the other side. And my own feeling has always been that unless both sides do this, there will be no peace, at least not one that long-lasting.

  2. Anonymous December 15, 2013 at 6:12 pm - Reply

    Mr. Scham is wrong to postulate that the reason for Israel’s demand for recognition by Arab states is because Israel means it as a roadblock. How can any state or any person negotiate in faith with an entity that denies its right to exist? There has never been any pronouncements by Israel that it is trying to extract a confession from Arab states that they were wrong to have opposed Israel’s re-emergence as a Jewish state.
    He ignores the genesis of the continuing Israeli/Palestinian conflict – Islamic ideology that Islam replaces both Christianity and Judaism, considered by Islamists to be corrupt religions. It is difficult and anathema for Muslim states to acknowledge and accept a Jewish state in their area, for to do so would acknowledge Judaism as a live and viable religion. Yes, two states, Egypt and Jordan have done so, governed by more moderate governments than Fatah and Hamas that still refuse to accept Israel. Mr. Scham also ignores the biblical/historical 4,000 year history of Jewish presence/governance in the land, as attested to in both the Christian and Jewish Bibles. Jewish Kings reigned starting 3,000 years ago. Most all West Bank towns/communities, pejoratively called “settlements” were Jewish communities for centuries, except for the time period 1948 – 1967. There was never an Arab Palestinian state. So why doesn’t it make sense for Israel to be recognized as a Jewish state?

  3. Ralph Seliger December 15, 2013 at 11:31 pm - Reply

    Paul is correct that Israel doesn’t need Palestinian recognition of its validity as a Jewish state to define itself as such. He’s also correct that the Palestinian failure to acknowledge Israel’s majority-Jewish nature should not be a condition that blocks progress toward a two-state solution, as the right in Israel demands.

    But if the two-state solution is not fundamentally about establishing two states for two peoples, then what is it about? Both sides need to return to the good sense of the UN partition resolution of 1947, in which both a majority Jewish state and a majority Arab state would coexist in peace, guaranteeing that their respective Arab and jewish minorities would also abide in peace and with equal rights.

    This would not mean that the Palestinian Arab side must acknowledge wrong at every turn; it only means that they would admit to their tragic error in 1947-48, which would now be redeemed in part by a lasting peace with Israel that finally establishes a majority Palestinian-Arab state.

    Admitting this truth removes a right-wing Israeli excuse against a two-state solution. And how can it be too bitter a pill for Palestinians to swallow now if it helps them achieve their state quickly and peacefully?

  4. Paul L. Scham December 16, 2013 at 2:39 am - Reply

    Thanks to all three people who commented above. These are all serious arguments.
    Perhaps my primary point is that Palestinians will not agree to a formula that they feel negates their dignity and their struggle. I have spoken to hundreds of Palestinians, most of them in favor of a two state solution, and have never met one who considered Palestinian resistance to partition wrong. Some readily admitted it was a mistake, but you will never get Palestinian nationalists to admit that the Jewish claim is superior to theirs, and that’s how they understand this demand. But that has no relationship to being willing to live in peace with Israel, which is a pragmatic decision.
    In my view, ideology does not belong in a peace agreement because the parties will never agree to the same one. The historical and religious claims of Jews and Palestinians are logically inconsistent but can be resolved pragmatically with a 2-state solution.
    To turn Moshe Dayan on his head, I believe a pragmatic peace without such an acknowledgment is better than no peace. I don’t think the darkest fears of Palestinians about the reasons Israel wants the acknowledgement are true. However, as someone familiar with both narratives I cannot imagine a Palestinian government acceding to it. They see it as a capitulation.

  5. daveed in Princeton December 16, 2013 at 6:57 am - Reply

    It’s good that my friend Paul began this post confessing he has never understood the current Israeli demand that Arab states recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” Adding: “Unless, that is, it is meant primarily as a roadblock to any successful peace settlement.”

    It may be Bibi’s intention to block a peace agreement with the Palestinians that relinquishes the West Bank, and the settlements. But for many Israelis, his demand for Arab recognition as a Jewish State, is not just a tactic, but the core the conflict. And not only of the conflict, but of the existence of the State of Israel as the national home of Jewish People. The reason that Bibi has made this demand, is that it resonates across the Israeli political spectrum.

    As has been discussed often, Zionism is not just one ideology, but is full of nuanced streams and interpretations. Even those who most seek peace and a compromise resulting in two states for two peoples, are still Zionists. But they believe that Israel exists not only because of the need for a national home where all Jews can find refuge, as has happened so often in our history, but because of the need for the political expression of the national right of self-determination of the Jewish People.

    The more ideological Left of the Zionist movement, in HaShomer HaTzair and MAPAM, also believed in universal and humanist values. They also believed that the establishment of the State, gave us rights and privileges, but also responsibilities. Responsibilities that we offer refuge and succor to other Jews in need (therefore, Israel’s Law of Return, and the ‘klita’ or absorption, of hundreds of thousands refugees from Europe, and later, from the Arab countries), but also to act in accordance with our other values as humanists, and provide equality and justice to all of those living in the country. Thus our stressing of the expression, “the Jewish state, and the state of all its citizens.” And if until the Six Day War of 1967, MAPAM had its work cut out for it to work for social, economic, political, and ethnic justice and equality for ALL Israelis, Jews and Arabs, the reality of the Occupation of the Golan, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, reminded us that the Jewish people had demanded their right to national self-determination, and needed to recognize the right of our neighbors to national self-determination.

    And thus, in the aftermath of the Six Day War, we find the birth of the modern Peace movement in Israel, in the discussions compiled in the book “Siach Lochamim” (translated as ‘The Seventh Day: Soldiers Talk about the Six Day War’), and following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the 1977 visit to Israel by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the birth of Shalom Achshav (Peace Now).

    But have no illusions, the real struggle is not about the settlements. If Israel is to truly live in peace alongside a Palestinian state, a diplomatic agreement, defined borders, security arrangements, are not enough. As heirs to a people persecuted and denigrated for centuries, more than just a safe place, Israelis crave recognition of our right to exist in our homeland. Most Israelis understand that the land is shared, and needs to be shared, with the Palestinians.

    But in their claims, the Palestinians are also seeking the recognition of their right to national self-determination, their Right of Return. And if they make the claim of national self-determination for themselves, they must accept that Israel, their neighbor, has the same right.

    If you subscribe to realpolitik as the basis for reaching a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, then those conditions listed above are enough, but will only be just a halt to belligerence. A temporary arrangement. But if you want Israelis to feel that they can take the risks needed to truly make peace, if you hope for, and dream of, reconciliation between Israeli and Palestinian societies, then you will understand why the call for the Arab states to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” so resonates with Israelis.

  6. Marc Paige December 16, 2013 at 2:46 pm - Reply

    It’s ironic that Bibi wants Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, but the Likud policies are leading to a one state solution where Jews will be the minority.

  7. daveed in Princeton December 18, 2013 at 3:58 pm - Reply

    Paul, I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject since reading your piece, so I have something to add to my earlier comment.
    When Bibi says “recognition of Israel as a Jewish state”, what I’m hearing is Victor Shem-Tov, the old leader of MAPAM, saying: “peace and compromise based on the mutual recognition of the right of self-determination of both peoples”. This was his response to the 3 No’s of the PLO’s Khartoum Resolution of September 1967.

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