Palestinian recognition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people has become a central Israeli demand that is being portrayed as an existential concomitant of Israel’s perceived security needs. Despite Israeli claims to the contrary, this is indeed a relatively recent demand, one that was not raised in previous rounds of negotiations either with the Palestinians nor with any other Arab party before 2008.
Be that as it may, it has not only been adopted by the current Israeli government but has secured growing support abroad from both Western governments and pro-Israeli and Jewish circles in the Diaspora, and was formally endorsed by President Barack Obama as a prerequisite for peace on May 19.
Meanwhile, the official PA/PLO position is that how Israel defines itself is not a Palestinian concern, and that the Palestinians cannot accede to this demand on two basic grounds: First, because it prejudices the political and civic rights of Israel’s Arab citizens comprising 20 percent of the population whose second-class status would be consolidated by dint of recognition of the "Jewishness " of the state; and second, because acknowledgement of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people would compromise the Palestinian refugees’ right of return as there would be no moral or political grounds for them to return to a universally recognized Jewish state.
But this is neither a complete nor totally convincing riposte. The Palestinians cannot be indifferent as to how Israel defines itself, or how others are ready to define it. In the context of the struggle over the shape and future of the Holy Land, one side’s appropriation of a certain definition affects not only the rights of those who reside in this territory, but their very history and identity, their relation to the land, and by extension their rights, future and fate as well. There are, in fact, several deeper layers to this issue that warrant further examination and debate.
First, and perhaps most importantly, if Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, then the lands that it occupies today — and perhaps more as there are as yet no borders to this homeland — belong to this people by way of right. But if these lands rightfully comprise the Jewish homeland then the Arab presence there becomes historically aberrant and contingent; the Palestinians effectively become historic interlopers and trespassers — a transient presence on someone else’s national soil.
This is not a moot or exaggerated point. It touches on the very core of the conflict and its genesis. Indeed, it is the heart of the Zionist claim to Palestine: Palestine belongs to the Jews and their right to the land is antecedent and superior to that of the Arabs — this is what Zionism is about and what justifies both the Jewish return to the land and the dispossession of its Arab inhabitants.
But this is not the Palestinian Arab narrative, nor can it be. We do not believe that the historical Jewish presence and connection to the land entail a superior claim to it. This we believe is our homeland established over one-and-half thousand years of continuous Arab-Muslim presence, and that we were eventually only dispossessed of it by superior force and colonial machination. For us to adopt the Zionist narrative would mean that the homes that our forefathers built, the land that they tilled for centuries, and the sanctuaries they built and prayed at were not really ours at all and that our defense of them was morally flawed and wrongful: we had no right to any of these to begin with.
The demand for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people has yet another dimension. It places the moral burden of the conflict on the Palestinians, and consequently, not only exonerates Israel from the dubious moral circumstances of its birth but makes the Palestinians the historical transgressors; by refusing to accept the Jewish claim to the land we would be to blame for what has befallen us. By this token, the entire conflict should and could have been averted; we should have simply have handed the land "back" to its rightful owners from the very start. It is Arab rejection that caused the conflict and not the Zionist transgression against Arab land and rights. This is of course precisely why this Israeli government and its most ardent Zionist supports want to wrest this recognition from the Palestinians as it would absolve Israel of its "original sin" and delegitimize the Palestinian version of their own history.
Furthermore, this gives Israel the right to demand a measure of retributive justice; the Palestinians started the conflict and they should pay for their "sins". The refugees should pay for their dispossession and the Palestinians should lose their claim to equality and equivalence in any political settlement premised on supposedly painful or generous Israeli concessions. The putative Palestinian state should not be allowed what Israel allows itself, whether this is the right to self-defense or the right to be free from foreign (Israeli) military or civilian presence on its soil. (Note the striking passage in President Obama’s address in which the flat statement that "every state has the right to defend itself" is followed immediately and without a trace of irony by the demand that the putative state of Palestine should be "non-militarized"). From this perspective, the Palestinians must remain on semi-permanent probation as the past culprits and potential future miscreants.
But, the argument goes, all this has to do with the past. Why not extend your recognition to Israel as the Jewish homeland as it stands today — not as an extension of the historic conflict but as a reflection of today’s realities and as means of resolving the conflict?
There are a number of answers to this. We understand that there is a Jewish majority in Israel today and that the character of the state reflects this. But we cannot sever the thread that connects the past to the present and, necessarily, to the future. A homeland cannot merely be a construct of today with no implications for tomorrow.
And there is more. Israel’s Arab population is of the same provenance and root as the rest of the Palestinian Arabs — their right to be where they are is no less than that of the residents of the West Bank or Gaza, or the right of any Palestinian anywhere to claim the land of Palestine/Israel as their patrimony. By accepting the definition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people (indeed, in any way it wishes) the "outside" Palestinians (in the occupied territories and the Diaspora) would be effectively undermining the Israeli Arabs’ claim to belong to this same homeland. The land of Palestine/Israel would thus no longer be their home and their right to be there would no longer have any historical or moral validity; for on what basis would they continue to reside in some else’s homeland and what grounds would they have to demand equal political and civic rights there to begin with?
By saying that we are indifferent to Israel’s self definition we would be dissociating ourselves from our kinship with the "insiders" and acknowledging that we have no concern for our common identity or fate. In other words, the message to Israel would be "do with them what you will, because you can define yourself as you want regardless of what this implies". The upshot would be not only prejudicial to the Israel Arabs’ political and civil rights but a dissolution of the ties that have shaped a common Palestinian identity across the boundaries of a nominal and entirely arbitrary line that was established in 1949. In this context, the Palestinians (and the international community) may as well demand that a precondition for peace is that Israel defines itself as a state of all its citizens — a demand that is certainly more consistent with the Western-liberal tradition that Israel purports to represent than its claim to ethno-religious exclusivity.
The language of homelands is deeply problematic when faced with diametrically opposed and deep-seated narratives (the formulation "Israel as the state of the Jewish people" leads us back to the same political and ideological impasse as before; "Two states for two peoples" begs the question of who these two peoples are). How Israel defines itself is of profound import to the Palestinians and the nature of any potential settlement. To call on the Palestinians to recognize it as the homeland of the Jewish people is to take a decisive stand against the Palestinians’ history, narrative, and political rights. The international community must understand and recognize this as it embarks on this step. The Israelis and the Jewish communities across the world must reconcile themselves to a peace that is based on other foundations.
The Palestinians (as represented by the PLO) have indeed formally recognized both the reality of the state of Israel and "its right to live in peace and security" as per the September 9, 1993 letter from Chairman Arafat to Prime Minister Rabin and the subsequent double amendment of the PLO’s Charter in 1996 and 1999 (the latter case upon the demand of then Prime Minister Netanyahu himself). In any future peace treaty the Palestinians may reasonably be further asked to accept the agreed borders as final and inviolable, to commit to a resolution of all outstanding problems by peaceful means, not to allow their territory to be used for hostile acts against Israel, to respect the holy sites of all faiths, and to undertake that a comprehensive settlement of all the core issues will represent a final end to the conflict. What they cannot be expected to do is to renege on their past, deny their identity, take on the moral burden of transgressor, and give up on what they believe is their history. They cannot be expected to become Zionists.
Ahmad Samih Khalidi is a former Palestinian negotiator and Senior Associate Member at St Antony’s College, Oxford.