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Why Harper’s ‘Jewish state’ demand is a word too far

If there is one largely agreed-upon principle in modern international ethics, it is that no country should view itself as the domain of a single people or ethnic group. When, for example, Beijing officials act as if China is the land of the Han majority at the exclusion of Uyghurs or Tibetans, or when Indian political parties adopt Hindu-nationalist rhetoric, they receive outright condemnation from the rest of the world.

There are exactly three exceptions. Three times in history, following atrocities and horrors, the world has agreed to allow nation-states to take shape and gain independence in order to shelter a specific people from ruin.

They are: modern Armenia, created in 1918; Israel, born in 1948; and Kosovo, recognized as an independent state by most of the world in 2008. All three are home to multiple ethnic and religious groups, and all three grant citizenship to them. But nobody pretends that these countries exist for any reason other than to provide a secure homeland to Armenians, Jews and Albanian-speaking Kosovars, respectively. That basic fact of their origin shapes – and sometimes paralyzes – their political destiny.

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So it is natural that when people refer to Israel – by far the most prominent, successful and contested of those three countries – they will casually use the phrase "the Jewish state." In newspaper articles and speeches, "Jewish state" has long been a synonym for Israel. It seems self-evident: Why else is there an Israel?

But to use that phrase with political intent is a far different, more dangerous matter. Prime Minister Stephen Harper should have known this when he arrived in Jerusalem this week and demanded, explicitly in a printed statement and then implicitly in his speech to the Knesset, that the Palestinian Authority recognize the "Jewish State of Israel" as a precondition for peace.

Recognizing Israel's right to exist as a legitimate and sovereign state is indeed a necessary and longstanding precondition for any peace agreement – and it's a precondition the Palestinians have willingly met since 1993,when the Palestine Liberation Organization first recognized Israel's statehood. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas continues to reiterate this recognition (while requesting that Palestine also be recognized as a state).

But the notion that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is a new and controversial development, imposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with little support from his parliament or from the Israeli people (the term first appeared in language used by Mr. Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert).

The demand makes little sense. More than a fifth of Israeli citizens are Palestinian Arabs; to ask them to recognize their country as the "Jewish homeland" may be commonsensical, but the phrase "Jewish state" seems to a threat to their equal citizenship. Why would Palestinians accept this, any more than Christians in Egypt would recognize their country as an "Islamic state?"

Nor does it have much support beyond Mr. Netanyahu and a circle of right-wing politicians, many of whom seem uninterested in negotiating a peace deal. Indeed, many suspect that their addition of the "Jewish state" phrase is a deliberate tactic to render a near-term deal unworkable.

Israel's president, Shimon Peres, denounced the demand this week as "unnecessary" and an impediment to the peace deal being negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

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Finance Minister Yair Lapid went further in an earlier TV interview: "I don't feel we need a declaration from the Palestinians that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state… The whole concept, to me, of the State of Israel is that we recognize ourselves, that after 2,000 years of being dependent on other people, we are now independent and we make our own rules."

Or, as the Israeli writer Bernard Avishai recently put it, "When Palestinian spokespeople speak to Israeli reporters in Hebrew, they are recognizing Israel in the most poignant possible way. To ask for more is tactless."

Beyond its colloquial use, "Jewish state" is a hotly contested term within Israel. Israel's declaration of independence refers to the country as "a Jewish nation-state" and Israel's body of constitutional law refers to "a Jewish and Democratic state." But interpreters are divided over whether this means Israel is "a state of Jews" or whether it is "a Jewish country." This has been the subject of lengthy legal and media debate for decades. Religious Zionists – who are a minority within Israel's widely secular and non-religious population – do see their nation as Jewish in fundamental identity. Arab-Israelis have said, in polls, that they are comfortable with the existing language. But insisting that Palestinians, in seeking their own state, use this language is quite another matter, and there is little sign that Israelis support Mr. Netanyahu's demand.

As several commentators have said, Mr. Harper's visit served to strengthen his government's support for Mr. Netanyahu – but not for the Israeli people. In endorsing language that seems sure to destroy any hope for a lasting peace, he may have pleased the Prime Minister and a handful of his colleagues, but he did no favour at all to eight million Israelis.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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