By Elhanan Miller
March 1, 2017
Political leaders are often selective with the information they choose to share with the public. For Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that means choosing to conceal what he knows about the true position of the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, on Israel as a “Jewish state.”
As he stood next to President Trump at a news conference in Washington on Feb. 15, Mr. Netanyahu cited two prerequisites for achieving peace with the Palestinians: Under any deal, Israel must maintain full security control west of the Jordan River; and Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state. But Mr. Abbas already made this recognition of Israel’s Jewish character — more than two decades ago.
In an interview with the London-based daily newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat in 1994, Mr. Abbas argued that the Jewish presence in Palestine was fundamentally different from any other Western colonization. Contradicting the Arab view of Jews as purely a religious group rather than also a national one, Mr. Abbas acknowledged that what motivated Jews to immigrate to Israel was a mixture of religious and national aspirations.
“Due to various causes, they have managed to establish a Jewish state in Palestine,” he said. “Most of its inhabitants were born in the state. This is a painful truth that many refuse to understand.”
Mr. Abbas’s loaded language of “national struggle” masks a surprising truth: He is the only Arab leader to publicly acknowledge Israel’s Jewish character and tacitly validate its claim to nationhood in a hostile political climate that generally likens Israeli Jews to Crusader invaders.
Mr. Abbas today faces grave political challenges. A recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of respondents wanted him to resign from office, up from 61 percent three months earlier. His Arab critics assail him as a traitor on an almost daily basis. Despite this, that landmark interview was printed in Ramallah as a booklet in 2011 and uploaded to the presidential website; he has never disavowed it.
Some might say that Mr. Abbas accepts Israel’s Jewishness only as a fait accompli, not as a matter of historic right. But for the purposes of a peace deal, what difference does that make?
Fears on the Israeli right that Palestinians would use a non-recognition of the Jewish state to swamp Israel with Palestinian immigrants and change the demographic balance are unfounded. Not only is Israeli security built on maintaining control of its borders, but Mr. Abbas has explicitly ruled out such a strategy. In a 2012 Israeli TV interview, Mr. Abbas renounced the unlimited return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, himself included, to Israel proper.
“It’s my right to see it, but not to live there,” he said of his native city of Safed, which he left as a 13-year-old child during the war of 1948. Asked whether he considered Safed part of Palestine, Mr. Abbas replied that for him Palestine means the territory beyond the 1967 lines, including East Jerusalem, “now and forever.”
Since all this is so, why does Mr. Abbas now decline to restate his recognition of Israel as a Jewish state?
First, neither Egypt nor Jordan, the only two Arab states to have signed peace deals with Israel, were ever asked to do so. Demanding this of Mr. Abbas, now one of the weakest and least popular leaders in the region is unfair and unjustified. Israel’s national character is its own business; it doesn’t require Palestinian validation.
There is a darker reason Mr. Abbas often cites. In Israel’s current political climate, recognizing Israel’s Jewishness could compromise the civil standing of Israel’s Arab citizens, who largely view their national identity as Palestinian. In July, Israel’s Parliament passed legislation enabling a majority of lawmakers to remove a fellow member for inciting violence or terrorism. The Association for Civil Rights has warned that this law could be used to silence and exclude Arab deputies.
In the 2015 election campaign, the defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, proposed redrawing Israel’s borders to exclude Israeli Arab towns, pushing for their incorporation into a future Palestinian state. He has continued to press this theme.
“I want to disengage from all the Palestinians living here, within the 1967 lines,” he told Israel’s “Meet the Press” recently.
“If you’re Palestinians, go to Abu Mazen and become citizens of the Palestinian Authority,” he went on, using Mr. Abbas’s Arabic nickname. “Let him pay your unemployment, health benefits and maternity leave.”
In this hostile atmosphere, concerns about the future of Arab Israelis who choose not to relocate to “Palestine” are legitimate.
By contrast, it should be noted that President Abbas does not support a Palestinian state where no Jews can live — contrary to claims made by Mr. Netanyahu. In a 1995 peace proposal devised with the Israeli politician Yossi Beilin (published days before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and therefore never developed), Mr. Abbas outlined proposals for Jewish citizens in a Palestinian state: Jews would be allowed to remain in communities open to Palestinians, unlike current settlements, as Palestinian citizens; or, if they so chose, they could remain as resident aliens who maintained Israeli citizenship.
Again, embracing Jews as citizens is not new for Mr. Abbas. Back in 1977, he blasted the Arab world for turning against its Jewish citizens following the creation of Israel in 1948, forcing them to migrate to Israel. “The Arab regimes’ treatment of Jewish citizens is as regrettable as it is painful. It cannot be described as anything but an embarrassment and a travesty,” Mr. Abbas wrote in his book “Zionism: Beginning and End.”
Mr. Netanyahu can continue to use “Jewish state” recognition as a way to derail talks, enabling him to attack a straw man of Palestinian intransigence. Or he can highlight Mr. Abbas’s stated positions, restore good faith on both sides and empower the international community to improve peace efforts. That is the political choice for Israel’s prime minister to make.
Elhanan Miller is a Jerusalem-based journalist and research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think tank.