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Palestinians in a Jewish State

Coauthored by Gareth Bridgewater.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's much-ballyhooed speech at the UN has been described as "Iran-heavy and Palestine-lite." The problems Netanyahu is seeking to distract attention from are not limited to the Palestinian territory Israel occupied in 1967 but also extend to the basic rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The latest round of peace negotiations, or rather, negotiations about peace negotiations, has a distinctly hollow ring to it. Secretary of State John Kerry's determination to restart the 'peace process' in any form, regardless of Israel's increasing intransigence, contained more than a hint of desperation. The gradual disappearance of the peace process from Israeli political discourse, and the reluctance of Israeli politicians to discuss the occupation or solutions to it, suggests a climate in Israel's corridors of power which is ill-suited to any meaningful progress being made in the long-running saga of peace negotiations.

Israel has appeared somewhat bemused at the enthusiasm of its American ally but it stands to gain little from actively resisting Kerry's initiative. Instead, it has openly declared its willingness to attend negotiations, while simultaneously pursuing a 'business as usual' strategy which seems almost purposefully designed to extinguish trust and kill off expectations.

Recently, 17 members of Netanyahu's governing coalition wrote a letter insisting that "Israel will not return to the Oslo outline, and will not hand further parts of the motherland to the Palestinian Authority." The governing coalition is clearly not serious about a meaningful peace deal and the Israeli military, at the government's behest, is doing its utmost to force Palestinian negotiators away from the table by creating an extremely tense climate. Israeli forces have killed six Palestinians since talks began, including civilians.

Crucially, Netanyahu seems fixated on obtaining formal recognition of Israel as a Jewish state by the Palestinians, and indeed the Arab world as a whole. To be clear, Israel is already a Jewish state, one which clearly defines itself as such, and one which since its inception has pursued policies to strengthen, reinforce, and increase its Jewish character. These policies are pursued through all the means available to the state, whether it be violence through the destruction of Palestinian homes and villages, through legal rulings legislating the confiscation of Arab lands, or through countless, successive government policies which formalize Jewish hegemony and superiority over the indigenous Arab population.

By insisting on official recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, Netanyahu and his coalition seek to legitimize Israel's pursuit of undemocratic policies to bolster the Jewishness of the state. Democratic norms and the spirit of modern participatory democracy require a citizen-state relationship based on equality of citizenship. Israel instead supports an unequal citizenship whereby the citizen-state relationship is conceptualized as an ethno-religious relationship, privileging Jews above its Arab Palestinian citizens. To illustrate the point, a Jewish American who voices an interest in emigrating to Israel will receive a heightened form of Israeli citizenship compared to the country's original Palestinian citizens, enabling them to settle in areas barred to Palestinians, or to bring a spouse of their choosing to the country.

Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would condemn the estimated 1.3 million Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to a permanent status of inequality, prejudice their quest for equality, and pre-empt the right to claim equality. There is a danger that by instituting the West Bank (or parts of it) as a Palestinian state and Israel as a Jewish one, the conflict will be seen as solved by the international community, ignoring the lives of Israel's Palestinian citizens and their children while legitimizing their dispossession and unequal allocation of rights and resources on the basis of Israel's agreed-upon 'Jewish' character.

Any settlement to the conflict must involve recognition of the individual and collective rights of all parties, Jews and Arabs. The pursuit of discriminatory policies with the justification that Israel is a Jewish state is both unethical and undemocratic. Yet Israel is actively promoting in its schools the idea of Israel as a Jewish state and downplaying the importance of being a democratic state. Palestinians, who represent some 20 percent of Israel's population, have long faced discrimination in the Israeli educational system, but after recent years brought mild improvements are now once again facing open efforts in the school textbooks to diminish their standing and to disparage the notion of equality of citizenship.

It is illogical for a country with mixed demographics to define itself on the identity of just one sector of society, in the same way that it would be unimaginable for the United States to characterize itself as a Christian state. Forced dispossession and the exile of most Palestinians from the areas now under Israeli jurisdiction mean that Jews now make up 75 percent of the population of Israel.

Those Palestinians who managed to remain should not continue to suffer from second-class citizenship simply because their identity is at odds with the identity of the new majority population. Neither should the normalization of this status become a pre-requisite for a peace deal. The Obama administration should take every opportunity to remind Netanyahu that the United States takes equal rights very seriously both in the occupied territories and within Israel itself. Clearly, such rights are absent for Palestinians in both geographical areas. President Obama should note the discrimination and clearly state that the United States does not approve. At long last, Prime Minister Netanyahu should be put on notice.


Nadim Nashif is founder and Director of Baladna, the Association for Arab Youth and a Policy Member of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network. Gareth Bridgewater is Graduate of SOAS University and current intern at Baladna.