This article originally appeared in the current issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol 40, no. 4 (Summer 2011):
In his speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on 24 May 2011, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared:
It is time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say: “I will accept a Jewish state.” Those six words will change history. They will make clear to the Palestinians that this conflict must come to an end; that they are not building a state to continue the conflict with Israel, but to end it. They will convince the people of Israel that they have a true partner for peace.
Palestinian recognition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people has become a central Israeli demand that is being portrayed as an existential concomitant of Israel’s perceived security needs. Despite Israeli claims to the contrary, this is in fact a relatively recent demand, as Raef Zreik argued in the last issue of this journal. It was not raised in previous rounds of negotiations either with the Palestinians or with any other Arab party before 2008.
Be that as it may, not only has it been adopted by the current Israeli government, but it has secured growing support abroad from both Western governments and pro-Israeli and Jewish circles in the diaspora. In a major policy address on 19 May, President Barack Obama formally endorsed the definition of “Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people”—the first time a U.S. president has done so.
Meanwhile, the official PA/PLO position is that how Israel defines itself is not a Palestinian concern, and that the Palestinians cannot accede to this demand on two basic grounds: first, because defining Israel as a Jewish state prejudices the political and civic rights of Israel’s Arab citizens, who comprise 20 percent of the population and whose second-class status would be consolidated by dint of recognizing the “Jewishness” of the state, and second, because to acknowledge Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people would compromise the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, as there would be no moral or political grounds for them to return to a universally recognized Jewish state.
Negating One’s Own History
But even the PLO riposte, while perhaps valid as far as it goes, is to my mind neither complete nor totally convincing. The Palestinians cannot be indifferent to how Israel defines itself or how others are ready to define it. In the context of the struggle over the shape and future of the Holy Land, one side’s appropriation of a certain definition affects not only the rights of those who reside in the territory, but their very history and identity, their relationship to the land, and by extension their rights, future, and fate as well. There are, in fact, several deeper layers to this issue that warrant further examination and debate.
First, and perhaps most importantly, if Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, then the lands that it occupies today (and perhaps more, for there are as yet no borders to this “homeland”) belong to this people by way of right. And if these lands rightfully comprise the Jewish homeland, then the Arab presence there becomes historically aberrant and contingent; the Palestinians effectively become historic interlopers and trespassers—a transient presence on someone else’s national soil.
This is not a moot or exaggerated point. It touches on the very core of the conflict and its genesis. Indeed, it is the heart of the Zionist claim to Palestine: Palestine belongs to the Jews and their right to the land is antecedent and superior to that of the Arabs. This is what Zionism is all about, and what justifies both the Jewish return to the land and the dispossession of its Arab inhabitants.
Clearly, this is not the Palestinian Arab narrative, nor can it be. Palestinians do not believe that the historical Jewish presence in and connection to the land entail a superior claim to it. Palestine as our homeland was established in the course of over fifteen hundred years of continuous Arab-Muslim presence; it was only by superior force and colonial machination that we were eventually dispossessed of it. For us to adopt the Zionist narrative would mean that the homes that our forefathers built, the land that they tilled for centuries, and the sanctuaries they built and prayed at were not really ours at all, and that our defense of them was morally flawed and wrongful: we had no right to any of these to begin with.
The demand for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people has yet another dimension. It places the moral burden of the conflict on the Palestinians, and consequently, not only exonerates Israel from the dubious moral circumstances of its birth but makes the Palestinians the historical transgressors. Indeed, by refusing to accept the Jewish claim to the land, we are to blame for what has befallen us: had we accepted Israel’s claim during the Mandate years, the entire conflict could have been averted; we should simply have handed the land “back” to its rightful owners from the time that they began to articulate, at the dawn of the twentieth century, their interest in it as an actual—rather than spiritual—homeland. From this perspective, it is Arab rejection that caused the conflict and not the Zionist transgression against Arab land and rights. This is of course precisely why this Israeli government and its most ardent Zionist supporters want to wrest this recognition from the Palestinians, as it would absolve Israel of its “original sin” and delegitimize the Palestinians’ version of their own history.
Taking this reasoning to its logical (if extreme) conclusion, recognition would give Israel the right to demand a measure of retributive justice. If the Palestinians caused the conflict, they should pay for their “sins”: the Palestinian refugees should not be compensated for their dispossession, and the Palestinian people as a whole should lose any claim to equality or equivalence in any political settlement premised on supposedly painful or generous Israeli concessions. Certainly, the putative Palestinian state should not be allowed what Israel allows itself, whether this is the right to self-defense or the right to be free from foreign (i.e., Israeli) military or civilian presence on its soil. (Note the striking passage in President Obama’s address in which the flat statement that “every state has the right to defend itself” is followed immediately—and without a trace of irony—by the demand that the putative state of Palestine be “nonmilitarized.”) From this perspective, the Palestinians must remain on semipermanent probation as past culprits and potential future miscreants.
Recognizing the “Jewishness” of the State as it Stands Today
But, the argument goes, all this has to do with the past. Why cannot the PLO/PA extend recognition to Israel as the Jewish homeland as it stands today? In other words, why can’t recognition be seen not as an extension of a historic conflict, but simply as a reflection of today’s realities and as a means of resolving the conflict?
There are a number of answers to this. We understand that there is a Jewish majority in Israel today and that the character of the state reflects this. But we cannot sever the thread that connects the past to the present and, necessarily, to the future. A “homeland” cannot merely be a construct of today, with no implications for tomorrow.
And there is more. Israel’s Arab population is of the same provenance and root as the rest of the Palestinian Arabs—their right to be where they are is no less than that of the residents of the West Bank or Gaza, no less than the right of Palestinians anywhere to claim the land of Palestine/Israel as their patrimony. By accepting the definition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people (indeed, “in any way it wishes,” according to the official PLO position), the “outside” Palestinians (in the occupied territories and the diaspora) would effectively be undermining the Israeli Arabs’ claim to belong to this same homeland. The land of Palestine/Israel would thus no longer be their home, and their right to be there would no longer have any historical or moral validity: Israel’s self-definition accepted, on what basis would they continue to reside in someone else’s homeland, and what grounds would they have to demand equal political and civic rights there to begin with?
By thus signaling our indifference to Israel’s self-definition, we would be dissociating ourselves from our kinship with the “insiders” and acknowledging that our common identity or fate has little meaning for us. In other words, the message to Israel would be: “Do with the Palestinian citizens what you will, because you can define yourself as you want regardless of what this implies.” The upshot would not only be prejudicial to the Israeli Arabs’ political and civil rights, but a dissolution of the ties that have shaped a common Palestinian identity across the boundaries of a nominal and entirely arbitrary line drawn on a map in 1949. In this context, and in defense of the rights of the Arab minority in Israel, the PLO (and the international community) could as well demand as a precondition for peace that Israel define itself as a state for all its citizens—a demand that is certainly more consistent with the Western liberal tradition that Israel purports to represent than its claim to ethno-religious exclusivity.
The language of homelands is deeply problematic, especially when it involves diametrically opposed and deep-seated narratives. The formulation “Israel as the state of the Jewish people” leads us back to the same political and ideological impasse as “Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people,” as it is based on the same premise. “Two states for two peoples” begs the question of who these two peoples are: Is Israel the state of all its peoples, or just a Jewish state? How Israel defines itself is of profound import to the Palestinians and the nature of any potential settlement. To call on the Palestinians to recognize the Israeli state as the homeland of the Jewish people is to take a decisive stand against the Palestinians’ history, narrative, and political rights. The international community must understand and recognize this as it moves toward accepting Israel’s demands. The Israelis and the Jewish communities across the world must reconcile themselves to a peace that is based on other foundations than this.
The Palestinians (as represented by the PLO) have already formally recognized both the reality of the State of Israel and “its right to live in peace and security,” per the 9 September 1993 letter from PLO chairman Yasir Arafat to Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. The recognition was doubly reinforced by the two subsequent amendments of the PLO charter, in 1996 and in 1999 (the latter at the demand of then prime minister Netanyahu himself). In any future peace treaty, the Palestinians may reasonably be further asked to accept the agreed borders as final and inviolable, to commit to a resolution of all outstanding problems by peaceful means, not to allow their territory to be used for hostile acts against Israel, to respect the holy sites of all faiths, and to undertake that a comprehensive settlement of all the core issues will represent a final end to the conflict.
What they cannot be expected to do is to renege on their past, deny their identity, take on the moral burden of transgressor, and give up on what they believe is their history. In other words, they cannot be expected to become Zionists.
Ahmad Samih Khalidi, a former Palestinian negotiator, is editor of Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya, the Arabic-language sister publication to the Journal of Palestine Studies. A version of this essay was posted on Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel web site under the title “The Palestinians Cannot Be Zionists” on 15 June 2011 and this article appears in the current issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol 40, no. 4 (Summer 2011).