News reports continue to suggest that one of the primary roadblocks to any agreement in the current round of Israeli–Palestinian negotiations is the understandable Palestinian refusal to accept the Israeli demand that Palestine explicitly recognize Israel as a “Jewish State.” It is a legally and intellectually bizarre demand clearly intended to make any agreement impossible while facilitating Israel’s public relations campaign to assign responsibility for Israel’s latest success in producing failure to the occupied Palestinians.
Palestinian acceptance of this Israeli demand would constitute explicit acquiescence to permanent second-class status for Palestinian citizens of Israel and result in the liquidation of the rights of millions of Palestinian refugees. It would also imply acceptance by Palestinians that the ethnic cleansing of Palestine was morally justified, which in turn would require conceding that Palestinians were subhuman and not entitled to fundamental human rights.
No Palestinian leadership could accept this demand and survive. Israelis know that. That is why the demand is being made.
Few anticipate that the current round of negotiations (which, according to Israeli press reports, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now wants to extend for a further year beyond their end-April deadline so as to kill more time while building more settlements) will produce anything. Still, the State of Palestine could and should take constructive action now to disarm the ‘Jewish State’ gambit, which the Israeli prime minister appears to view as his best hope for shifting blame, at least in Western eyes, to the Palestinians.
The State of Palestine should reiterate that Israel’s self-identification is a matter for Israelis (not Palestinians) to decide. Then they should publicly announce that, should Israel choose to change its official name from State of Israel to Jewish State of Israel, the State of Palestine would persist in its efforts to end the Israeli occupation of the State of Palestine and reiterate that it would enter into any agreements that might subsequently be reached with the relabeled Jewish State of Israel.
All states save one—the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, due to an ongoing dispute with Greece over the ownership of the name “Macedonia”—are free to determine and embellish their official names as they please. These names have often been a locus of national identity; for example, there are four official “Islamic Republics”—Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania and Pakistan. Some official names are eccentric, such as the Oriental Republic of Uruguay (so named because the country is located on the eastern side of the Uruguay River), the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (so named because Simon Bolivar was Hugo Chávez’s personal hero), and, until recently, the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahirya.
The State of Palestine is entered in the UN’s alphabetical listings under ”S”, to emphasize its statehood. If a relabeled Jewish State of Israel wished to emphasize its Jewish character by being listed under ”J,”’ its wish would presumably be granted.
Nothing is stopping Israel from achieving a formal recognition of its status as a ‘Jewish State.’ The renaming would happen if the Israeli government wished to proclaim this status officially to the world—if it were of genuine concern to the government or a deeply felt necessity to the Israeli people, and not simply a cynical gambit to achieve and excuse failure in negotiations. However, Israel’s preferred self-identification and official name are not matters in which the State of Palestine has any role to play.
If the Israeli government does not dare to proclaim its state officially Jewish and accept the concomitant risks of doing so, how can it demand that those whose country has been conquered and colonized and whose people have been dispossessed and dispersed do so on its behalf?
Whether or not the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has any hope (or fear) that the current round of negotiations will produce anything, it should make the artificiality of the Israeli government’s demand and the reasonableness of the Palestinian refusal to accept it emphatically clear in terms that the international community, and particularly Western governments and peoples, can understand.