The statue of a horse in the Jenin refugee camp, symbol for the renewal of life from death and destruction. The statue was made out of scrap metal and destroyed car parts from the Israeli incursion in the camp during the Second Intifada
Talking to Israeli public radio on 11 March, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said that he would only agree on a peace deal that includes Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state and that forgoes the Palestinian right of return, repeating the already known Israeli position. Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is unacceptable for Palestinians, precisely because it would cancel the right of returns of the millions of Palestinian refugees. Next to the fate of Jerusalem, this recognition has become one of the main points for discussion in the renewed peace talks.
(No) right of return
In its Declaration of Independence in 1948, Israel established itself as a Jewish state and since 2009 Israel and its Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu (Likud) are asking Palestinians to do the same: recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state has become Netanyahu's focal point in the renewed US-sponsored peace talks. On several occasions, Netanyahu stated that he was prepared to make a final status peace agreement, only if Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
On 4 March, at the annual AIPAC conference, an American group of pro-Israel lobbyists, Netanyahu made clear what a Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would entail: "telling Palestinians to abandon the fantasy of flooding Israel with refugees."
Recognition of Israel has been a difficult issue for Palestinians in the past, but in 1993, prior to the Oslo Agreements, the PLO eventually recognized Israel in the 'Letters of Mutual Recognition." In return, Israel had to recognize the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
During Netanyahu's first term, between 1996 and 1999, the peace process gradually came to a halt, but the "Jewish state" demand wasn't a part of the Prime Minister's rhetoric. It was only in 2009, when Netanyahu formed a coalition with the Labor Party, the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, the ultra-orthodox Shas and the religious Zionist Jewish Home party, that this issue became the alpha and omega of the peace process for Netanyahu. Since then, he’s stated more than several times that it is the "only real issue."
Observers view Netanyahu's demand as another deliberate attempt to delay the peace talks. The demand is unacceptable for Palestinians, as they are not prepared to give up the right of return of millions of Palestinian refugees, one of the few remaining major Palestinians demands and one of the biggest concerns of the Palestinian people as a whole. Indirectly giving up this right before entering final status talks would also deprive Palestinian negotiators of their main leverage in negotiations.
For decades Israel has refused to acknowledge the right of return, which is protected by Article 11 of U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194. For Israel, the right of return for Palestinians is seen as a direct threat to the demographics of the Jewish state. Demanding the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is the newest way to avoid the exercise of this right.
In a response to Netanyahu's statement, Mahmoud Abbas said on 7 March that there is no way Palestinians would comply with the Israel’s demand. Talking to youth activists of his Fatah party, he added that he additionally would not agree to a Palestinian capital outside East-Jerusalem, making clear two of the largest Palestinian demands.
Sabotaging peace talks
Netanyahu is indeed trying to sabotage the peace talks, said op-ed contributor for The New York Times and political science professor at Birzeit University, Ali Jarbawi, in an interview with the Palestine Monitor.
Knowing that this recognition is an unacceptable demand for Palestinians, Netanyahu’s demand is a clear attempt to put the blame of what more and more look to be failed negotiations on Palestinians, according to Jarbawi.
Dr. Honaida Ghanim, General Director of The Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies (MADAR), agrees with Jarbawi. "Netanyahu is not serious about peace. He doesn't want to pay the full price of ending the occupation, so he doesn't want to talk about it. That's why he is shifting the debate to a question of recognition, something very easy to sell to the outside world," she told the Palestine Monitor.
"What this really means is the occupiers demanding from the occupied to acknowledge that they are the real indigenous people. He wants a Palestinian certificate of 'Jewish indigenousness', based on historic and religious grounds, and thus the de-indigenization of the Palestinians," Ghanim added.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has emphasized in the past that Palestinians have already recognized Israel, and that Israel can define itself however it wants. It is worth noting that in the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, Israel never made an issue of acknowledging the Jewish character of Israel.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently called the repeated demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state "a mistake" in a speech before the U.S. House Foreign Relations Committee, adding that international law and the U.S. already recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Kerry also stated his skepticism regarding the result of the peace talks, doubting if both sides will even be able to agree on a framework. It is thus unsure if Kerry, who is overseeing the peace talks, will accept the Israeli demand and include it in his proposed framework, which will be the basis for final status negotiations.
The U.S. is not alone in viewing such a move as a necessary and unavoidable step in the larger peace process. During a visit to Israel on 25 February, German chancellor Angela Merkel also affirmed her support of Israel's demand.
Denial of equal citizenship
In addition to the implications for the millions of Palestinian refugees sprawled across camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, Palestinians also fear the negative consequences this recognition will have on Palestinians living inside Israel.
Palestinian citizens of Israel make up about 20% of Israel’s population. They already face difficulties as non-Jews in a state that proclaims to be Jewish, yet Palestinian negotiators fear that recognition of the Jewish state would further jeopardize their already diminished rights.
"Because the state of Israel is defined (non-territorially) as Jewish, and Arabs can never become Jewish, their right to equal citizenship is structurally denied," wrote Israeli professor Oren Yiftachel of Ben-Gurion University in a 1999 research paper.
Palestinian citizens of Israel "continue to face rampant state and societal discrimination. In an atmosphere of regional conflict and ongoing threats to Israeli security, the government has shown repeated willingness to compromise the rights of Israeli Arabs in the name of greater security for Israel's majority," according to Minority Rights Group International,
"It is clear that Palestinian Israelis will never be equal citizens in a state that defines itself as Jewish," Dr. Ghanim said.
"It's as if a state that defines itself as 'white' would say that 'blacks' could enjoy the same rights. There's a built-in hierarchy in any state that determines its character on the basis of ethnicity or religion. They set a norm, in this case 'Jewish', and by doing that an exception is created, in Israel that means 'non-Jewish'," Ghanim concluded.
In recent years, citizenship of Palestinian Israelis has been attacked or at least questioned by several Israeli political parties. Current coalition party Yisrael Beiteinu for example used the slogan, "No Citizenship Without Loyalty," during the 2009 election campaign.
The party of Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman called for a 'loyalty-citizenship' law, requiring every Israeli citizen to sign a declaration of loyalty to the Jewish state of Israel. An adapted version of the proposed legislation, supposedly designed to encourage loyalty towards the state of Israel, passed in 2011. It enables the Supreme Court to revoke Israeli citizenship of anyone guilty of "treason, serious treason, aiding the enemy in a time of war, or having committed terror against the state."
Also in 2011, the Israeli Knesset approved the so-called Nakba Law, giving the Israeli government power to delay funds to organizations based in Israel that commemorate the Nakba. The law was contested by different NGO's but eventually upheld in a 2012 ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court. The Nakba, or catastrophe, is the term used by Palestinians to describe the expulsion of about 800,000 Palestinians from their land in 1948.