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It’s not up to Palestinians to say that Israel is a Jewish state
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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.” This is a legally and intellectually bizarre demand intended to make any agreement impossible while facilitating Israel’s public relations campaign to assign to the Palestinians responsibility for Israel’s latest success in producing failure.

Palestinian acceptance of this Israeli demand would constitute explicit acceptance of permanent second-class status for Palestinian citizens of Israel. It would also mean accepting the liquidation of the rights of millions of Palestinian refugees, as well as implicit acceptance that the ethnic cleansing of Palestine was morally justified, which would require conceding that Palestinians are sub-humans 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 April deadline so as to kill more time while building more settlements) will produce anything. But 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 could and should reiterate that Israel’s self-identification is a matter for Israelis (not Palestinians) to decide and then publicly announce that, should Israel choose to change its official name from the “State of Israel” to the “Jewish State of Israel,” the State of Palestine, while preferring democracy as a matter of principle and hoping that Israel will in the future become a fully democratic state, according equal rights without any discrimination based on race or religion to all its citizens, would persist in its efforts to end the Israeli occupation of the State of Palestine and would enter into any agreements that might subsequently be reached with the newly christened Jewish State of Israel.

Subject only to the one exception noted below, all states are free to determine and embellish their “official names” as they please. There are four official Islamic Republics: the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania and the Islamic Republic of 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) and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (so named, relatively recently, because Simon Bolivar was the late Hugo Chavez’s personal hero).

Some official names are counterintuitive to the point of absurdity, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea ... or, potentially, the Jewish and Democratic State of Israel.

Two official names show countries named for ruling families: the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In one case, a state’s official name has been imposed on it by the United Nations as a condition for U.N. membership and is rejected and not used by the state itself: the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which prefers to call itself the Republic of Macedonia but whose right to use the name “Macedonia” is disputed by Greece.

By choice, the Republic of Moldova and the State of Palestine are listed in the U.N.’s alphabetical listings among the Rs and Ss, respectively, while the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is, involuntarily, listed among the Fs. If a relabeled Jewish State of Israel wished to emphasize its Jewish character by being listed among the Js (as the State of Palestine has emphasized its state status by being listed among the Ss), its wish would presumably be granted.

If formalizing the status of Israel as a “Jewish State” were a genuine concern of the Israeli government or a deeply felt need of the Israeli people, and not simply a cynical gambit to achieve and excuse failure in negotiations; and if the Israeli government wished to proclaim this status officially to the world; nothing is stopping Israel from achieving this on its own. However, Israel’s 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.

John V. Whitbeck is an international lawyer who has advised the Palestinian negotiating team in talks with Israel. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 03, 2014, on page 7.
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