Balfour Redux

How Abbas Can Recognize A 'Jewish State' While Preserving Palestinian Rights

Palestinians worry that meeting Israel's demand to recognize a Jewish State could staunch Palestinian rights. Jeremy Pressman draws on history to show a way around the conundrum.

As Palestinians and Israeli negotiators meet today in Jerusalem, one contentious point remains the question of Israel as a Jewish State. At some time in the coming months, the Netanyahu government expects Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to accept language declaring recognition not just of Israel—the P.L.O. did that in 1988 and 1993—but of Israel as the Jewish State.

For PA leaders, one danger is that such wording will blunt the Palestinian right of return. If they accept Israel is a Jewish state, how can they demand the return of millions of non-Jewish Palestinian refugees to that same state? Millions of refugees would greatly erode or eliminate the Jewish majority.

But is that really a danger? Mahmoud Abbas is well aware that the Israel will not consent to absorbing the vast majority of Palestinian refugees. Moreover, if the two sides reach a comprehensive peace agreement, they will already, behind closed doors, have agreed to a resolution of the Palestinian refugee question. The order of the negotiations is not the PA accepts a Jewish state first and then the two sides talk about Palestinian refugees. So the secret and simultaneous nature of the talks should mitigate this first concern.Another danger, however, is that PA acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state could be used against Palestinian citizens of Israel in the future (or see Jonathan Cook's National story). It would give Israeli leaders a trump card against internal demands for greater Palestinian rights and equality. "If you Palestinian citizens don't like something about the Jewish state," the Israeli government could say, "tough luck. Go live in the newly-formed state of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza. Even your leaders told us that being the Jewish state, and all that that means, is kosher."

Now Abbas may not want PA negotiators to focus on Palestinian citizens of Israel. But if he does, the almost 100-year old Balfour Declaration offers some helpful language. Even as Zionists lobbied the British government to support the idea of a Jewish homeland, some Jews worried that Zionism would lead to a backlash against Jews who wanted to remain in other countries. Thus this wording:

His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people... it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice... the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

So Jews could live in their homeland or live as a minority in other countries. The wording meant the British endorsed both as options.

So perhaps Palestinian negotiators could pair the demand that they recognize Israel as a Jewish State with a second phrase: it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the rights and political status enjoyed by Palestinians in any other country.