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
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
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
“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
In this hostile atmosphere, concerns about
the future of Arab Israelis who choose not to relocate to “Palestine” are
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
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
Elhanan Miller is a Jerusalem-based journalist and research fellow at the
Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think tank.