Skip to main content

Why Palestinians Should Not Recognize Israel as Jewish State

A former Palestinian negotiator argues that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is an attempt to discourage agreement.
A boy stands near an Israeli flag in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ofra, north of Ramallah July 18, 2013. Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which have ebbed and flowed for two decades, last broke down in late 2010, after a partial settlement halt meant to foster talks ended and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend it. Palestinians familiar with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' thinking speculated he might now forgo the demand for a settlement moratorium given

Anyone who honestly seeks evidence that the Palestinian leadership is serious about its pursuit of a peace settlement with Israel is bound to find more than enough of that. In fact, there is so much evidence that it may cast the Palestinian position as one of weakness and desperate eagerness. That would be a misreading of a responsible and principled position based on what the Palestinian leadership thinks is in the best interest of the peoples of the region, the Palestinian people foremost.

Further testing and continuously raising the bar, by insisting on unreasonable demands to check Palestinian intentions, is counterproductive and threatens what could be the last opportunity to achieve peace based on a two-state solution. Putting demands on the Palestinians that are tantamount to asking them to accept Zionist credos cannot be taken seriously. A case in point is the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Despite the fact that the Palestine Liberation Organization has recognized the state of Israel for more than 20 years — with no reciprocal recognition by Israel of the state of Palestine — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has now added the issue of recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” as a precondition for any agreement. He is the first Israeli prime minister to make such a demand, and it has largely been recognized for what it is — an attempt to undermine the negotiations and ensure that no agreement is reached.

Not knowing what is happening in the current negotiations, I will venture to explain why such a condition should have no place on the negotiating table. Simply stated, this demand is discriminatory in that it concedes to all Jews, exclusively, an innate right to be in Palestine, whereupon Palestinians who live in Palestine do so only by permission of “the Jewish state” and not as an innate right. In fact, by recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, Palestinians would be stating that their presence in Palestine has been illegitimate all along. Of course, this is out of the question, and Palestinians cannot accept it.

Palestinians have a historic right to be in Palestine and to exercise their right to self-determination and establish a sovereign state of their own. Hence, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state challenges and puts in jeopardy the rights of all Palestinians who continue to live in their ancestral land as well as the rights of Palestinian refugees who were forcibly displaced and expelled from their homes in 1948 to make way for a state with a Jewish majority.

Because Palestinians cannot and will not undermine their own cause, they cannot and should not recognize Israel except as a state of its people, and its people are not all Jews. In fact, 25% of the current population of Israel is non-Jewish. This is another reason why the Palestinians cannot recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but also why whoever calls for such should be called to task.

Some may argue that UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, the Partition Plan, called for the establishment of a Jewish state and an Arab state. This, however, was a different sort of state than the one that Netanyahu wants recognized. Resolution 181 on partition with economic union sought to resolve communal strife. Thus, the United Nations decided to create two separate states for the Palestinians — one for Palestinian Jews (and not exclusively Jewish in terms of its inhabitants) and one for Arab Palestinians (which would have included a small Jewish community).

What Netanyahu is insisting on today is very different, so it is disingenuous to use Resolution 181 as the basis for legitimizing this demand. Indeed, a state for Palestinian Jews is not the same as a state for the Jews of the world. This is not to deny Israel the right to receive Jews from the rest of the world within its recognized boundaries. Once Israel was recognized as a sovereign member of the United Nations, with the condition that it respect all UN resolutions, including Resolution 194 [on the issue of refugees and compensation], it got leave to manage its own affairs, including immigration, subject to the said condition.

Once the state of Palestine receives equal treatment from the international community, Israel and Palestine will both be bound by what governs relations between states, mutual recognition included. Instead of asking Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, it is Israel that should be called upon to recognize the state of Palestine and to withdraw completely from all the territory that it occupied with the force of arms in 1967. This would be a more meaningful demand from those interested in the success of the present negotiations. Instead of testing Palestinian seriousness, all others concerned should now show similar seriousness about the pursuit of a peace settlement that is just, comprehensive and durable.

Nabeel Kassis is a former member of the Palestinian delegation to peace negotiations in Madrid and Washington.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in