Rights of Return and Recognition Cannot Be Swapped

By Leonard Fein

Published October 20, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In a recent New York Times essay, published Oct. 14, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, argues forcefully on behalf of the call by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. “Affirmation of Israel’s Jewishness,” he writes, “is the very foundation of peace, its DNA.”

Many others are puzzled by Netanyahu’s call. Israel is, after all, de facto a Jewish state. It would not be “more” Jewish were the Palestinians to agree to the fact, nor is it a whit less Jewish for want of their agreement. Something else must be going on here.

And, indeed, Oren proposes several arguments, all but one either irrelevant or misleading. So, for example, in order to “prove” the venerability of Jewish statehood, he cites both the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which called for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” and the 1922 declaration by the League of Nations, recognizing the “historical connection of the Jewish people to Palestine” as “the grounds for reconstituting their national home.” But the fact is that “national home” and “state” are not the same thing. Indeed, it was not until 1942, at the Biltmore Conference (so named because it was held at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City) that the Zionist movement itself, for the first time, elevated statehood to its central demand.

And Oren knows all this as well as anyone, better than most. In his 2007 book, “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present,” he writes, “Convening in the art deco dining halls of New York’s Biltmore Hotel in May 1942, Zionist representatives approved an eight point plan that, for the first time [emphasis added] explicitly called for the creation of a ‘Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.’ Gone were the proposals for an amorphous Jewish national home in Palestine, for carving out Jewish cantons and delineating autonomous regions within an overarching Arab state.” And even then, the call for statehood was opposed by, among others: Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization (1920-31, 1935-46), Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah in 1912 and Hashomer Hatza’ir, a prominent socialist Zionist party.

Five long years later, on November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted its approval of the establishment of “an independent state.” On the heels of the Kingdom of Night, the Republic of Hope.

In his Times essay, Oren goes on to say that “Israelis need to know that further concessions would not render us more vulnerable to terrorism and susceptible to unending demands,” but immediately follows those words with a sentence that deflates them: “Though recognition of Israel as the Jewish state would not shield us from further assaults or pressure, it would prove that the Palestinians are serious about peace.”

Come again? How would it prove that? If it is not a shield against violence, what is its value? Yes, it would be nice were the Palestinians to acknowledge what everyone in the world knows, that Israel is, as a matter of obvious fact, the Jewish state. Those among the Palestinians who advocate a two-state solution to the conflict already implicitly do exactly that. They may wish the Jews would miraculously disappear, as many Jewish Israelis surely would celebrate were the Palestinians to vanish. But such fantasies are pointless. What matters is that the West Bank Palestinian leadership is prepared, or seems to be, to make its own set of concessions, concessions that include the acceptance of Israel “as is.”

And so we come to the one argument put forward by Oren that rings both true and weighty. “For Palestinians, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state also means accepting that the millions of them residing in Arab countries would be resettled within a future Palestinian state and not within Israel, which their numbers would transform into a Palestinians state in all but name.” In other and plainer words, Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state would mean Palestinian abandonment of their “right of return.” And Oren says, almost in passing, that while Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would enable Netanyahu to “consider” extending the moratorium on West Bank construction, it is not a prerequisite for direct talks.

This is roughly where only the most stalwart remain attentive; it is simply too convoluted for most. The Palestinians say: “No more talks without a moratorium extension.” The Israeli prime minister says: “No more moratorium: We have the right to build, and will build, but if the Palestinians say we are Jewish, we will consider another recess in building.”

It is perfectly reasonable for Israel to insist that the new state of Palestine should be the place where the Palestinian right of return is exercised. In his day, Yasir Arafat broadly hinted at his acceptance of that position, and it has since then been well understood by members of the Arab League and widely accepted by the international community. It is, obviously, a matter to be discussed and decided in the course of negotiations. It ought not be part of a two-stage solution, a solution that starts with Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and then uses that recognition to proclaim that the right of return problem has thereby been resolved.

Oren observes, “Some analysts have suggested Mr. Netanyahu is merely making a tactical demand that will block any chance for the peace they claim he does not want.” But of course Netanyahu wants peace. The question has never been about whether he, or any Israeli leader, “wants” peace. The question has always been, and remains today, whether the kinds of compromises that a serious peace agreement necessarily entails are acceptable. That is not an endorsement of “peace at any price” — it is an assertion that peace does have a price. The down payment that Ambassador Oren describes and endorses, Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, is at best symbolic, a side issue. But this is time for substance, for talk of borders and Jerusalem and settlements and security and yes, the right of return.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.