According to both Israeli and Palestinian press reports, US Secretary of State spent a good chunk of his recent visit to Jordan and Saudi Arabia encouraging their leaders to push Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to agree to accept Israel as a Jewish state.
By doing this, Kerry reportedly said, he will be able to pressure Israel to make other concessions such as agreeing that the pre-1967 lines will be the basis for negotiations. That would fulfill a key Palestinian demand that Israel agree to discuss all areas it acquired in 1967, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
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Israeli officials will not comment on any aspect of the negotiations, having gotten clear instructions from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to do so. Yet they say that the need for accepting Israel as a Jewish state is obvious. Israel describes itself as both a Jewish and a democratic state.
“Ultimately the Palestinians have never publicly said they’re willing to accept a Jewish state in any borders and without such acceptance you don’t really have an end of conflict,” Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told The Media Line.
“If the goal is peace – real peace – that is absolutely necessary. If Israel is willing to accept that the Palestinian people have a right to a nation state of their own, then surely we are entitled to hear from the Palestinians that the Jewish people too are entitled to a nation state of their own.”
Palestinian officials say they officially recognized Israel in 1988, and see no need to do it again. They also say that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would prejudice one of their key demands.
“The Israeli demand not only recreates the historical narrative of the region, but it would threaten the Palestinian right of return,” Bassam Salhi, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee told The Media Line. “We totally reject accepting Israel as a Jewish state.”
In 1948, some 700,000 Palestinians both fled and were forced to leave the area that became Israel. Today they number more than four million people, and a key Palestinian demand has always been that they either be allowed to return to their former homes or receive compensation. If they recognize Israel as a Jewish state they say they feel they are giving up that right.
In addition, they say that Israel should be a state of all its citizens, not just for Jews. Some 20 percent of Israel’s citizens are Arab.
“It would be like saying that Palestinians are not citizens,” Jihad Harb, a Palestinian writer told The Media Line. “Besides, it’s not anyone’s business to recognize a state’s formula. Libya calls itself the great kingdom of Libya, and Israel can call itself an empire or kingdom or whatever it wants.”
But Israeli officials say it’s important to them that the Palestinians actually say the words, and mean them.
“If the Palestinians don’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state, they could try to transform it into a second Palestinian state, by demanding that Israel absorb millions of Palestinian refugees,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Media Line.
“A peace treaty is only worthwhile if it signifies the end of conflict. When we say a Jewish state, we don’t mean a religious state, we mean a nation state of the Jewish people just like Palestine will be the nation state of the Palestinian people.”
The press reports said that Kerry left the region optimistic after his tenth trip here. He is working on a framework agreement that he is most likely to present at the end of the month. If he does agree to persuade the Palestinians to accept the idea of Israel as a Jewish state, that could spark new movement in the peace talks.
This article was written by Linda Gradstein
Diana Atallah contributed reporting from Ramallah
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line