Peace Process in Focus: Recognizing Israel as a “Jewish State”

October 07, 2013 IMEU
Peace Process in Focus: Recognizing Israel as a “Jewish State”

On October 6, 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech at Israel's Bar-Ilan University in which he once again demanded that Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" as a crucial part of any final peace agreement. In his address, which was a follow up to a speech he gave at the same location in 2009 declaring for the first time his support (with numerous caveats) for the creation of a Palestinian "state," Netanyahu said:

"A necessary condition to getting a true solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian] conflict was and remains clear as the sun: ending the refusal to recognize the right of the Jews to a homeland of their own in the land of their fathers... That is the most important key to solving the conflict."



  • Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state means de facto endorsing Israel’s institutionalized discrimination against Palestinian Arab and other non-Jewish citizens of the state, who comprise approximately 20% of the population, about 1.6 million people. (See below for more on institutionalized discrimination against non-Jewish citizens of Israel.)
  • Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state means effectively renouncing the internationally recognized right of return of Palestinian refugees expelled from their homes and land during Israel’s creation in 1948. (See here for more on the right of return.)
  • Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state means endorsing an ideological narrative that denies and distorts Palestinian history, and seeks to subordinate fundamental Palestinian human rights for the benefit of Israeli Jews.



  • The demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” is rooted in an Israeli desire to maintain a Jewish majority state, in which Jews enjoy rights and privileges not granted to non-Jewish citizens, in a region that is predominantly Arab. The Israelis hope that by getting Palestinians to officially recognize Israel as a Jewish state in a peace agreement they can effectively negate the Palestinian right of return and legitimize in advance whatever discriminatory legal measures they may take in the future to ensure a Jewish majority, as well as current ones.
  • For the hardline Netanyahu, who boasted following his first term in office (1996-1999) that he “de facto put an end to the Oslo Accords,” insisting Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is also potentially a way to sabotage any negotiations while placing the blame on the Palestinians for being rejectionist. (See here for more on Netanyahu’s views on the two-state solution and peace with the Palestinians.)



  • Israel has not insisted that any country in the world, including the United States and the two neighboring Arab countries Israel has peace treaties with, Egypt and Jordan, recognize it as a Jewish state.
  • In 1988, the PLO recognized the state of Israel. This was a historic compromise on the part of the Palestinians, who effectively renounced claim to 78% of historic Palestine. (See map here.) In 1993, the PLO and the government of Israel exchanged official letters in which the Palestinians again formally recognized “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.”
  • The demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” was not part of the original Oslo peace process during the 1990s, only first appearing in 2001 when officials in the Bush administration began mentioning it. Prior to that, Palestinians had only been asked to agree to Israel’s existence as a state. Only in 2007 did Israeli officials begin demanding that the Palestinians formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
  • President Barack Obama adopted President George W. Bush's support for the new requirement of the Palestinians, publicly calling on Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.



  • The 2012 State Department country report on Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, released in April 2013, noted that Palestinian citizens of Israel suffer from "institutional and societal discrimination... in particular in access to equal education and employment opportunities."
  • While Palestinian Arabs comprise approximately 20% of the population of Israel (about 1.6 million people), as non-Jews they are confined by law and zoning policies to just 3.5% of the land. Approximately 93% of the land in Israel is owned either by the state or by quasi-governmental agencies, such as the Jewish National Fund, which discriminate against non-Jews. Palestinian citizens of Israel face significant legal obstacles in accessing land for agriculture, residential, or commercial development.
  • Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, approximately 600 new municipalities have been created for Jewish communities, while only a handful have been created for non-Jews.
    • Tens of thousands of Bedouin and other non-Jewish citizens of Israel live in villages that aren't recognized by the state or provided basic services like water or electricity. As many as 70,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel currently face eviction from their ancestral lands in the Negev desert, part of the so-called “Prawer plan” to "Judaize" the area.
    • Israeli government resources are disproportionately directed to Jews, a major factor in causing Palestinian citizens of Israel to suffer the lowest living standards in Israeli society by all socio-economic indicators.
    • Government funding for Arab schools is far below that of Jewish schools. According to the 2012 State Department country report on Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, released in April 2013: "Resources devoted to Arabic education were inferior to those devoted to Hebrew education in the public education system, leading some Arabs in ethnically mixed cities to study in Hebrew instead."
    • There are more than 50 Israeli laws that privilege Jews or discriminate against non-Jews. These laws affect everything from immigration and family reunification to land ownership rights. They include:
      • The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law prevents Palestinians from the occupied territories who are married to Palestinian citizens of Israel from gaining residency or citizenship status in Israel. This law forces thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel to either leave Israel or live apart from their families. In January 2012, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld the law against a challenge, with one justice writing, "Human rights are not a prescription for national suicide." In an editorial, the respected liberal Israeli daily Haaretz decried the decision as thrusting Israel “down the slippery slope of apartheid.”
      • In 2011, the Israeli government approved a law allowing approximately 300 rural Israeli Jewish-majority towns to reject residents who do not meet a vague “social suitability" standard. Critics, including Human Rights Watch, slammed the move as an attempt to allow Jewish towns to keep Arabs and other non-Jews out.
      • The British Mandate-era Land [Acquisition for Public Purposes] Ordinance law allows the Israeli government to confiscate land for “public purposes.” Israel has used this law extensively, in conjunction with other laws such as the Land Acquisition Law and the Absentees’ Property Law, to confiscate Palestinian land in Israel.
      • The Law of Return allows Jews born anywhere in the world to immigrate to Israel and receive full citizenship automatically, while Israel denies the same right to Palestinians, who were born in and expelled from what became Israel in 1948, and their descendants.
      • In 2011, the Israeli government passed the so-called “Nakba law" which bans state funding for groups that commemorate the tragedy that befell Palestinians during the establishment of Israel in 1948, when approximately 750,000 Palestinian Arabs were ethnically cleansed to create a Jewish-majority state. (See here for more on the Nakba.)
      • In recent years, at least four bills were submitted to the Israeli legislature attempting to further entrench Israel’s identity as a Jewish state into law. In June 2013, a bill was introduced by Yariv Levin of Netanyahu’s Likud party and Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party that would formalize Israel’s status as “the national home of the Jewish people,” specifying “that the right to national self-determination in Israel is reserved solely for Jews,” according to Haaretz newspaper.

photo: Christopher Hazou/IMEU