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Two Words Complicate Push For Middle East Peace: 'Jewish State'


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

In this part of the program, a perennial subject with a new complicating twist. The perennial is the push for a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Secretary of State John Kerry is mediating that effort and it's at a crucial point. The new twist is a very controversial Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. It's a demand posed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: When we make an agreement, it is an agreement between the nation state of the Jewish people and a nation state of the Palestinian people.

SIEGEL: Netanyahu says the Palestinians have to agree to that, to which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says no and he asks why.

MAHMOUD ABBAS: (Through Translator) I am being asked to personally recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Why? To make peace. You made peace with Egypt and you didn't ask them to recognize you. You made peace with Jordan and you didn't ask them.

SIEGEL: This spring, Secretary Kerry faces a self-imposed deadline to unveil not a peace agreement - he's found that's too ambitious - but a framework for a peace agreement. And the framework will likely address this issue. American diplomatic language already embraces it. Since 2011, President Obama has made a point of describing a Mideast peace agreement in terms like these.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people.

SIEGEL: Now, the description of Israel as Jewish state may seem self-evident. The population is about 75 percent Jewish. The flag features the Star of David, the Jewish Star. Most people speak Hebrew. But it turns out that description and recognition are very different things. Israel's finance minister called this demand rubbish, by the way. And many ordinary Israelis, typically those who lean politically left, like Amit Stark of Tel Aviv, say they don't need Palestinian recognition of Israel's Jewishness.

AMIT STARK: I don't consider it as a must. See the Orthodox demonstration a couple of days ago, this country belongs to different groups of people that have a different perception of what is the country. So if we haven't figured it out yet, so why ask somebody else to give an answer for that?

SIEGEL: But it's complicated. Take Ari Shavit, he's a prominent Israeli journalist and author of the book, "My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel." He is a self-described peacenik, but on this question he is in rare agreement with Netanyahu. He says asking the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is a just demand.

ARI SHAVIT: And I'll tell you why I think it's is a just demand. The real conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is based on mutual blinders. We did not see they should have a state of their own. And they did not see that we should have a state of our own. So if Israel does recognize now the Palestinian people, its legitimate rights and the right of the Palestinians to have a Palestinian state, I do not see any reason why the Palestinian would not recognize the Jewish people, its legitimate rights and its right to have a Jewish state.

SIEGEL: One objection Palestinians raise is that Israel has made peace with Egypt and with Jordan, and they didn't require the Egyptians or the Jordanians to acknowledge that Israel was the nation state of the Jews. Why must the Palestinians do so?

SHAVIT: Exactly because this is a unique bitter, deep conflict; much deeper than the conflict between Israelis and other Arab nations states. We are tragic twins. We share a land and this is why this piece is so difficult to reach. And that's why it needs a deep emotional, moral and ideological level. It's not like a formal peace, a strategic peace between countries that just draw a line.

SIEGEL: Just as Israeli writer Ari Shavit's view of this recognition question is complicated, so are the views of Palestinians. While President Abbas so far rejects the idea, Khazan Dhar - who is from is from the West Bank city of Nablus - can't bring herself to say Israel is a Jewish state. But she admits she would accept that if it meant peace.

KHAZAN DHAR: (Through Translator) If everyone can live in their own state in peace, then no problem. If we can live peacefully in our state and they live peacefully in their state, then why not?

SIEGEL: Shibley Telhami is a University of Maryland political scientist. In fact, he's Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, the author most recently of "The World Through Arab Eyes." He's done polling throughout the Middle East.

Shibley Telhami, first of all, how important to Palestinians is this question of recognizing or not recognizing Israel as a Jewish state?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: It is very important. First, we see it in public opinion polls. But it's more than that. At the level of official position, there are three things going on for the Palestinians. One is an emotional issue because it ties up to the legitimacy of their struggle. They see if you recognize the legitimacy of Israel's Jewish state, it is really sort of acquiescing to the fact that the displacement of Palestinians in '48 was itself legitimate. So it does evoke a lot of emotions.

Second, it's a question of timing. If it were part of a final status deal, much as the framework, it is possible that Palestinians may be more open to it. In part because they think that this could be a tactic by Netanyahu to get them to agree with this and then they will have accepted the principle but then not had a state of their own.

And the third is the status of Arab citizens of Israel. When you accept Israel, quote, "as a Jewish state," what does that do to its democracy for 25 percent who are non-Jewish, 20 percent who are Arab? These are complicated issues and they have to be dealt with. They can't just be washed away.

SIEGEL: The recognition demand isn't like lines on a map or numbers of refugees - issues on which you can split the difference. But Shibley Telhami sees room for compromise here, too.

TELHAMI: We haven't seen the formulation yet, right? So we really don't know exactly what the formulation is in the framework. I happen to think that if there is a final status agreement and that agreement has a clause like accepting two states - Palestine which is the state of the Palestinian people and an Israel which is state of the Jewish people and of all its citizens - our polls show that ultimately Palestinians are prepared to accept it, reluctantly, but are prepared to accept it.

SIEGEL: Why wouldn't the Palestinians state be a state of the Palestinians and of all of its citizens?

TELHAMI: I think they should because it should accommodate the possibility that there will be non-Palestinian citizens in their state.

SIEGEL: Are you surprised by the arrival of this particular issue with such significance now, this late in the game?

TELHAMI: No because, you know, in the end, when you come close, I mean, in some ways it's a very good thing. It's a good thing because it means that people think that this is may be on the horizon and they have to deal with real issues. And so, I think it doesn't surprise me at all because this just brings back all of the emotional issues up to the forefront.

Obviously a lot of it has to do also with the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself made it a central issue. Whether it's tactical or he really means it, it's another question but for policies they're having to deal with it. The U.S. has adopted more or less the Israeli position on this one, which makes it difficult for the Palestinians. But I think there is formulas for coming out of this.

SIEGEL: Shibley Telhami, thank you very much for talking with us.

TELHAMI: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: The history of Mideast negotiations is not an encouraging one, so it's a stretch to imagine that in a matter of weeks or months or even a few years, all issues are resolved, all claims satisfied, all demands met. But let's say that they are, including this question of Israel's existence as a nation state of the Jews.

Let's return to Israeli author and journalist Ari Shavit.

Ari Shavit, if that is agreed, what does that mean domestically for Israelis - Jewish and non-Jewish Israelis - if the state is declared a Jewish state?

SHAVIT: This will not change anything because Israel was formed under the U.N. resolution in 1947, which did not have the word Israel in it but had the concept Jewish state. Since then, we evolved and now we define ourselves, rightly so, as a Jewish democratic state. It's not perfect. It does involve some difficulties for the non-Jewish minorities. But if you look at the Middle East this is the lesser evil of all options.

SIEGEL: Ari Shavit, thank you very much for talking with us.

SHAVIT: Thank you.

SIEGEL: John Kerry is expected to produce a framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace next month. And President Obama is widely expected to dive into negotiations, pursuing an agreement that has eluded the parties for decades. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.