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Defining 'Jewish state': For many, term has different meanings

Convening a new round of negotiations in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt between Israel and the Palestinians, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the "time is ripe" for a Mideast peace deal.

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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 8:17 PM

Nine years ago, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell delivered a speech on the Middle East in which he briefly called on Palestinians to recognize Israel as a "Jewish state." Powell doesn't recall how the phrase ended up in his speech, but David Ivry, then the Israeli ambassador to the United States, says he persuaded an aide to Powell to slip it in.

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From that small seed - the first time a U.S. official took sides on the issue - a significant and potentially insurmountable hurdle has emerged, one that could scuttle President Obama's newly launched effort to promote a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

President George W. Bush picked up the "Jewish state" concept in his speeches and used it in a controversial exchange of letters with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004. Obama has also adopted the phrase, most recently in a speech last month before the U.N. General Assembly.

Deep meanings

Describing Israel as a "Jewish state" may seem like standard boilerplate in the United States, often used in newspaper articles and television programs. But words can carry deep meanings, especially in Middle East diplomacy.

For the Israeli government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" would mean acceptance that the Jews have existed in the Middle East for thousands of years - and that Palestinian refugees have no claim to return to property they fled or were forced to flee when Israel was founded six decades ago.

Palestinians see their "right of return" as a sacred tenet. They regard a "Jewish state" as a trap, a new demand that did not come up during years of negotiations in the 1990s or in peace treaties reached with Egypt and Jordan. The Palestine Liberation Organization recognized the State of Israel as part of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

Diana Buttu, a former aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and now a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School, participated in the 2001 talks at Taba, Egypt. "I was in the negotiations on refugees, and there was no mention of it," she said. "It is entirely new."

Maen Areikat, the PLO ambassador to the United States, said: "We view it as a political maneuver by the Israelis, an attempt to preempt and prejudge the outcome of final status issues." Palestinian officials would never agree to the concept, he said, because it would mean giving up the right of return.

Moreover, Palestinian and Arab officials contend that labeling Israel a "Jewish state" calls into question the rights of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, who comprise 20 percent of Israel's population.

'Paramount' concern

In a 2009 speech, Abbas heaped scorn on the concept. "What is a 'Jewish state'? We call it the 'State of Israel.' You can call yourselves whatever you want," he said. "You can call yourselves whatever you want. But I will not accept it. . . .You can call yourselves the Zionist Republic, the Hebrew, the National, the Socialist [Republic], call it whatever you like. I don't care."

Michael B. Oren, the current Israeli ambassador to the United States, says that the question of a "Jewish state" is "not only important, it is paramount." The Oslo accords were flawed, he said, because although the PLO recognized the state of Israel, the Israeli government at the same time recognized the PLO as "the representative of the Palestinian people."

"When I read that, I thought, 'Oh, oh, this is a mistake.' It is not reciprocal," Oren recalled. "I thought it would be the undoing of Oslo." He said the Netanyahu demand is not a new concept, noting that the U.N. partition of the British mandate in 1948 referred to a "Jewish state" and an "Arab state." (Buttu dismisses the comparison, saying that "Jewish Palestinians would have been a minority in the enclave that would have been created.")


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