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In his fiery speech before the United Nations General Assembly last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu made the following ultimatum to the Palestinian leadership:

We ask the Palestinians to finally do what they have refused to do for 62 years: Say yes to a Jewish state. Just as we are asked to recognize a nation-state for the Palestinian people, the Palestinians must be asked to recognize the nation state of the Jewish people.

The Prime Minister in the Palestinian Authority, Salem Fayyad has responded to this ultimatum with a verbal shrug saying, "Israel's character is its own business. It is not up to the Palestinians to define it."

Where did the demand to recognize the Jewish nature of Israel originate? Why do Palestinians refuse to comply with this demand?

First a brief history lesson:  In 1988, the PLO recognized the state of Israel.  Yasser Arafat made the statement of recognition along with a renunciation of terrorism in response to long-standing Israeli and American demands.  The statement was seen as a milestone by most of the world and by Palestinians, who were dismayed that their leadership had effectively given up 78% of their land.  

At the same time, the PLO's declaration was met with skepticism and "unhappiness" on the part of Israel and the United States.  Foreign Minister Shimon Peres accused Mr. Arafat of engaging in a  ''cunning exercise in public relations.''

In 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Arafat exchanged official letters of "in which the Palestinians formally recognized “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security,” while in return Israel acknowledged the PLO as the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people."  Days later the Oslo Accords were signed and sealed with a handshake between Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat on the White House Lawn, with a beaming Bill Clinton overlooking.  "It was the first direct, face-to-face agreement between the government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)."

So back to one of the original questions posed here:  Where did the demand for recognition of a "Jewish state" originate?

Colin Powell, then-Secretary of State, made the first mention of it in 2001.  In a speech, he briefly called on Palestinians to recognize Israel as a "Jewish state." When asked how this wording ended up in his talk, Powell claims he doesn't know, but David Ivry, then the Israeli ambassador to the United States, says he persuaded an aide to Powell to write it in.

From that point onward, Israel and the United States have insisted on the recognition of a Jewish state in Israel.  However, the Palestinian resistance to this demand is not just a technical snafu, as Prime Minister Fayyad suggested.  The resistance to this declaration is substantive and carries great political significance to Palestinians.  

The crux of the Palestinian issue is the fate of the millions of refugees who were exiled from their homes during the creation of Israel.  The right of return for these refugees is a major pillar of Palestinian aspirations for a just resolution to the conflict with Israel.  Recognizing Israel as Jewish state would mean renouncing the internationally recognized right of Palestinian refugees to return.  This is not a right that any Palestinian leadership politically or legally can renounce on behalf of the refugees.  This is especially true of the current Palestinian leadership that has no refugee representation and who is seen as illegitimate by most Palestinians since the presidential mandate of PA President Mahmoud Abbas expired in 2009.  

The second source of contention for the Palestinians is the situation of Palestinian citizens of Israel who make up 20% of Israel's population.

Under the banner of protecting the Jewish nature of the state, Israel has enacted no fewer than 30 discriminatory laws that harm its Palestinian citizens.  On the issue of citizenship matters, Adalah, an Israeli NGO that advocates for equal rights for Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians records the following:

Palestinian citizens of Israel are afforded differential and unequal treatment
under Israeli law in the  field of citizenship rights. The most important
immigration and nationality laws—including the Law of Return (1950)
and the Citizenship Law (1952)—privilege Jews and Jewish immigration.

If the spouse of a Palestinian citizen of Israel is a Palestinian resident of the
OPT, it has been virtually impossible for him or her to gain residency or
citizenship status in Israel since May 2002. This ban on family unification
is totally disproportionate to the alleged security reasons cited by Israel to
justify it; rather, it is motivated by the state’s desire to maintain a Jewish
demographic majority.

On land use, the Adalah documentation reports:

The Jewish National Fund (JNF)—a body with quasi-state authority that
operates solely for the interests of the Jewish people and controls 13%
of the land in the state—continues to wield decisive influence over land
policy in Israel, having been allocated six of a total of 13 members of the
newly-established Land Authority Council.

Arab towns and villages in Israel suffer from severe overcrowding, with Arab 10
municipalities exercising jurisdiction over only 2.5% of the total area of the
state. Since 1948, the State of Israel has established approximately 600 Jewish
municipalities, whereas no new Arab village, town or city has ever been built.

On political participation, Adalah has this to say:

A series of Israeli laws institute a range of restrictions on freedom
of movement, freedom of speech, and access to the political system,
including ideological limitations on the platforms of political parties and
severe restrictions on travel by MKs to Arab states classified as “enemy
states”. Such laws are used predominantly to curb the political freedoms
of Palestinian citizens and their elected representatives and are steadily
shrinking the space for political action available to them.  

Palestinians fear that recognizing the Jewish nature of Israel means endorsing and making permanent the state's discrimination against its Palestinian citizens.

Asking Palestinians to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” has been likened to asking American Jews and other non-Christians to officially recognize the United States as a “Christian state.”  

h/t Institute for Middle East Understanding

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