Alarm bells sound over “Jewish state”

Jewish settlers demonstrate at the construction site of road being built on confiscated Palestinian land near the West Bank village of Al Nu’man, east of Bethlehem, and call for the banning of Palestinians from the road, December 2006. Magnus Johansson/MaanImages)

CAIRO, 28 January (IPS) - Within recent months, several Israeli and US officials have stressed Israel’s unique character as a “Jewish state.” But according to many Arab observers, the designation negates the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, and leaves the door open to expulsion of Israel’s Arab citizens.

“The idea of a ‘state for Jews’ neutralizes the right of some five million Palestinian refugees to return to what is now Israel,” Abdel-Halim Kandil, former editor-in-chief of opposition weekly al-Karama told IPS. “It would also subject Arabs resident in Israel to the possibility of expulsion at any moment.”

The description was mentioned several times by top-level Israeli officials in the run-up to the US-sponsored Annapolis peace conference held in late November.

Weeks before the summit, convened with the ostensible aim of restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said recognition of Israel “as a state of all the Jewish people” constituted a starting point for negotiations. Such recognition, he added, would represent a “condition” for Israeli acknowledgment of any future Palestinian state.

“Whoever doesn’t accept this can’t hold negotiations with me,” Olmert was quoted as saying. “This has been made clear to the Palestinians and the Americans.”

Days later, Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni made similar statements.

“It must be clear to everyone that the state of Israel is a national homeland for Jewish people,” she said.

Livni went on to say that a future Palestinian state would provide a homeland for Palestinians worldwide, including those currently residing in Israel.

“The national demands of Israeli Arabs should end the moment a Palestinian state is established,” she said.

The comments drew angry reactions from Arab figures in Israel. Some said the statements portended the eventual expulsion of Israel’s Arab citizens, who represent roughly 25 percent of Israel’s population of about six million.

“The residence and citizenship [of Israel’s Arab population] are not open for discussion,” Arab Knesset member Ghaleb Majadleh was quoted as saying. “Anyone who raises the idea of transferring the Arab population in Israel … is anti-democratic.”

The notion of Israel as a nation exclusive to the Jewish people has not been limited to officialdom in Tel Aviv.

At the Annapolis summit, attended by representatives of 16 Arab countries as well as Israel and the Palestinian Authority, US President George W. Bush repeatedly stressed Israel’s specifically “Jewish” character.

Nor was it the first time: at an April 2004 meeting with then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, Bush — still in his first term — emphasized his administration’s commitment to Israel as a “Jewish state.”

The US President also used the occasion to provide Sharon with “guarantees” — ratified by both houses of US congress — unilaterally affirming Israel’s right to retain major Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank. Bush further stated that Palestinian refugees should be expected to return to a future Palestinian state rather than to Israel.

According to Ahmed Thabet, professor of political science at Cairo University, Bush’s stand on the issue comes as little surprise given his well-known ideological affiliations.

“The Republican Bush administration represents the neo-conservative movement, which — along with the Israeli right wing — adheres to the racist notion that Israel should be exclusive to Jews,” Thabet told IPS. “But this position conflicts with liberal concepts, like the equality of races and creeds, on which America was founded.

“It also flies in the face of the common perception of Israel as a democratic country,” he added.

But Arab critics also note that, within US political discourse, the contentious designation has also been embraced by prominent members of the US Democratic Party.

“I think everyone knows what the basic outlines of an [Israeli-Palestinian final status] agreement would look like,” Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said in a recent campaign speech. “It would mean that the Palestinians would have to reinterpret the notion of right of return in a way that would preserve Israel as a Jewish state.”

Echoing a widespread Arab grievance, Thabet noted that overwhelming support for Israel extended across the US political spectrum, regardless of party affiliation.

“When it comes to support of Israeli positions,” he said, “there doesn’t appear to be any difference between the US Republican and Democratic parties.”

According to Kandil, the latest push for acknowledgment of Israel as a distinctly Jewish state is a result of changing demographic realities inside Israel.

“Israel depends on high levels of Jewish immigration to keep up with the Palestinian population, but this source is running dry,” he said. “Jews in Europe and America — who enjoy political and economic influence — might support Israel financially, but they don’t want to move there.”

Kandil went on to cite official Israeli statistics indicating that only some 20,000 Jews immigrated to Israel in 2007. “At this rate, the number of Palestinians living in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will surpass the number of Jews in Israel within 20 years,” he said.

Egyptian government officials, meanwhile, have played down the significance of Israel’s “Jewish” designation.

“Bush and Olmert can use whatever phrases they want,” Mohamed Basyouni, former Egyptian ambassador to Israel and head of the (upper) Shura Council’s committee for Arab affairs, told IPS. “In any case, we reject the term because it negates the Palestinian right of return and suggests the possibility of the expulsion of Israel’s Arab citizens.”

Nevertheless, recent developments on the border have led some local commentators to warn of long-standing Israeli designs to resettle Palestinian refugees in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Last week, the border fence separating Egypt from the Gaza Strip was largely destroyed by a series of explosions. As a result, an estimated half a million Gazans — suffering from a severe Israeli embargo on the territory — flocked into Sinai to buy essential commodities.

“Israel hopes to exploit the situation … to bring about calls by the international community for the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Sinai,” editor-in-chief Mohamed Ali Ibrahim wrote in the 27 January edition of official daily al-Gomhouriya. “But Egypt will never allow Sinai to be a part of this devious solution to the refugee problem.”

Ultimately, said Thabet, official recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” per se would not only imperil the future of Israel’s Arab citizens, but would also lead to “disastrous consequences” for the entire region.

“Such a move would only encourage notions of religious exclusivity and lead to more conflict and intolerance in the Middle East,” he said. “If Israel becomes a nation for Jews only, there will inevitably be calls to establish states exclusive to the followers of other religions as well.”

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