The question of “mutual recognition”—which has powerful symbolic and practical meaning—has hovered over Israeli-Palestinian relations for decades. Despite a breakthrough in 1993, when Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo Accords, the issue remains only partly resolved.
Israel has increasingly emphasized the need for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state.” Advocates of this position argue that one of the sources perpetuating the Arab-Israeli conflict is an unwillingness of Palestinians and Arab states to accept the Jewish connection to the land and the inherent Jewish character of modern Israel. Those who support this view, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are not satisfied with the degree of mutual recognition that was embedded in the Oslo process.
Therefore, ending the conflict necessitates recognition of the Jewish character of the State of Israel. Israelis contend that recognition could help protect Israel from international delegitimization efforts, including legal proceedings, and importantly, from future challenges to its Jewish character by Palestinian refugees and/or non-Jewish citizens. Israeli polling has indicated that recognition of Israel as a Jewish state has emerged as a powerful symbol, and if it were addressed, Israelis could be more likely to compromise on other core issues. Although a popular position with the Israeli public, many veteran negotiators and experts discount the demand, saying it is used as a convenient excuse to avoid the hard work of direct negotiations, or that it disadvantages Israel by potentially exposing the country to concrete concessions on tangible issues (like territory or Jerusalem) in exchange for what is essentially a symbolic step by Palestinians.
Despite showing some willingness in the past to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Palestinians have hardened their official positions more recently, partly as a reaction to what they perceive to be Israel’s hostility toward Palestinian statehood and insufficient Israeli recognition of their national movement and right to self-determination. Today, most Palestinians reject recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, emphasizing that they have recognized Israel as a state since 1988. Palestinians also point out that Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan contain no such recognition. Palestinians fear that recognition of Israel’s Jewish character is a scheme to limit the right of return of refugees, disenfranchise Israel’s substantial minority of non-Jews and that it could have negative implications for Jerusalem’s Muslim and Christian holy sites.
In 2018, Israel ratified as a Basic Law — similar to a constitutional amendment — that “the land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people… The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people… [and] the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” Palestinian officials criticized the law as “dangerous and racist…[for denying] the Arab citizens their right to self-determination.” Israel’s non-Jewish communities, including Arabs and Druze, also criticized the new law, saying it suggests that they are second-class citizens. Negotiations have not been held since then, so it is not yet clear if the new law will satisfy the Israeli demand, since the state’s “Jewish” character is now rooted more deeply in law, or if it will prove to be another stumbling block.
NARROWING THE CONFLICT
In past negotiations, U.S. mediators have explored a formula of mutual recognition which could be acceptable to both sides. Framed in the language of democracy and human rights, both sides could recognize “Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people” and “Palestine as the nation-state of the Palestinian people,” with declared commitments to equal rights for all citizens and minorities. Other possible phrasing could recognize both sides’ “legitimate, historical attachment to the land,” without requiring them to recognize the other’s “right” to the land. Further, another alternative could require both sides to recognize the other’s “right to self- determination in a sovereign state.”
Since the Bush 43 administration, the United States’ own policy has evolved and Washington began to reference Israel as a “Jewish state.” For example, at the Annapolis peace conference in 2007, President Bush said the U.S. “will never abandon its commitment to the security of Israel as a Jewish state and homeland for the Jewish people.”1 “Bush Pledges Aid for Abbas Gov’t,” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/16/washington/16cnd- prexy.html
For more, read Tal Becker’s “The Claim for Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State: A Reassessment” report.