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Did Yasser Arafat recognize Israel as a Jewish State?

Submitted by Robin Messing on Thu, 03/20/2014 - 6:06am

Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel not just as a state that has a right to exist in peace, but as a  "Jewish State".  Netanyahu insists that this is a red line--if the Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish State then there will be no peace deal.  Abbas, so far, appears to be staking out a position against recognizing Israel as a Jewish State.  I already wrote a column discussing why the Palestinians should not recognize Israel as a Jewish State, but should recognize Israel as a state "designed for the protection of Jews."  Today I want to deal with a claim by those who said that Yasser Arafat was willing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.  How can Abbas justify refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state when Arafat has already done so?

The claim that Arafat was willing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state rests on two incidents: a December 1988 press conference held in Sweden and a June 2004 interview with Haaretz's editor in chief and its senior diplomatic reporter.  In the 1988 press conference, Arafat said

The PNC accepted two states, a Palestinian state and a Jewish state, Israel. Is that clear enough?

And in the 2004 Haaretz interview, Arafat said that he and the PNC "definitely" recognized that Israel should remain a Jewish state.  So case closed.  Arafat recognized Israel as a Jewish state, so Abbas has no excuse to avoid recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.  Right?  Right??

Not so fast.  first, different analysts interpret Arafat's 2004 interview differently.  As Yair Rosenberg noted in a recent Tablet article:

Last month, senior Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit recounted how Arafat had recognized Israel’s Jewish character in a 2004 interview, calling it “The Arafat Precedent.” Some commentators disputed Shavit’s account, however, arguing Arafat was only offering a de facto acknowledgment of the facts on the ground–Israel’s Jewishness–not an actual affirmation. 

Rosenberg linked to a an article by Matt Duss as an example of someone who refuted Shavit's account.  Here is what Duss had to say:

Israeli journalist Ari Shavit recently unearthed a 2004 interview with Yassir Arafat, in which the late PLO Chairman and Palestinian Authority President was asked, “You understand that Israel has to keep being a Jewish state?” Arafat responded, “Definitely.”

According to Shavit, this shows that Arafat “recognized Israel as a Jewish state.” But reading the original interview, it doesn’t appear that this is quite the case, at least not in the sense that Netanyahu seems to mean it.  Arafat is recognizing an existing fact — Israel is a Jewish majority state — and affirming that he would agree to a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue that did not attempt to change that fact through the large-scale return of Palestinian refugees.

Duss went on to cite conflicting polls amongst Palestinians as to whether the Palestinians should accept Israel as a Jewish state before concluding that what Netanyau meant by  "Jewish state" was quite different from what Arafat was willing to recognize.  Duss writes:

In Netanyahu’s version, writes Gershom Gorenberg, “Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state means accepting confirming (sic) an Israeli narrative of ’3,800 years’ of history,” which is as much of a non-starter for the Palestinians as adoption of the Nakba narrative is for the Israelis. 

Now Rosenberg seems to think that a video from the 1988 press conference vindicates Shavit's view that Arafat did indeed recognize Israel as a Jewish state.



I am not sure why Rosenberg thinks this video is so important or how it changes the debate.  First, Rosenberg is wrong in characterizing that this video may lend credence to Shavit's interpretation of the 2004 Haaretz's interview over Duss's interpretation.  The two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.  Both analysts agree that Arafat has said the PNC recognized Israel as a Jewish state.  Where they seem to disagree on is exactly what this means.  Duss notes that Arafat's interpretation of a Jewish state is different than Netanyahu's interpretation.  Shavit says nothing about this point.  And the video doesn't shed any light on the question.

And if one wants to be picky, this video by itself doesn't even prove that Arafat said that the PNC recognized Israel as a Jewish state.  It is unclear from the video clip alone exactly what Arafat meant.  What does the phrase "between brackets" mean?  I assume he means the verbal equivalent of scare quotes. Scare quotes are used to signal sarcasm or less than full agreement with what is actually being said or written.  

Assuming Arafat intended to signal the use of scare quotes, we must then decide what he intended to enclose within quotes.  Compare the following.  First is Rosenberg's interpretation of the video.

the PNC [Palestinian National Council] had accepted two states, a Palestine state and Jewish state–between brackets- ‘Israel.’


But here is another way to interpret Arafat's statement:

the PNC [Palestinian National Council] had accepted two states, a Palestine state and "Jewish state"–between brackets- Israel.


Where one places the brackets makes all the difference in the world.  And why should we suppose that Arafat intended to bracket "Israel" as opposed to the phrase "Jewish state"?  So the video by itself proves nothing.  We have to turn to the 2004 interview to try to parse what Arafat meant.  Here is the relevant portion of the interview.  Arafat's answers are in bold.


What about a solution [to the right of return problem]  that can allay Israeli concerns about a flood of refugees?


"Look, look, I discussed this matter clearly and obviously in Camp David with President Clinton and with Barak. [After a long aside about student days in Cairo, Arafat referred to a purported clipping, from Haaretz, that he carries with him.] "It is still in my pocket, I will give it to you to see it: 62 percent of those who came [to Israel] from the Soviet Union, are not Jews; 90 percent of these are Christians and 10 percent are Muslims. And I told Clinton, okay, if they are accepting those 62 percent - they have become 70 percent by now - why not to give the chance for our people? Especially in Beirut, who are living in Lebanon, in a very very very bad circumstances."

All of them?

"Not all of them, a part of them who are still in refugee camps." . . .

Can you say to the Israeli public that your strategy, your goal, is not to change the demography and to change the character of Israel as the Jewish state? Can you assure Israelis that you don't want to use the refugees in order to change the demographic balance and the character of the state?

"Why I don't speak about the other refugees? I speak about the refugees in Lebanon because they are living in very hard conditions. Without our help it is very difficult for them to carry on living."

Why don't you say that those 200,000 Palestinians in Lebanon are invited, most of them or some of them, to return to the state of Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza, and some, a small number, to the Jewish State of Israel?

"First of all, we are not forbidden, and you are not refusing any Palestinians, displaced or refugees, to come to the Palestinian territories; you are not, there is no problem. And as I mentioned there is a committee of the four countries to follow up the displaced refugees. But I was speaking about this tragedy of our Palestinians who are living in Lebanon, and had been accepted by Barak and by President Clinton that we have to find a solution for them."

But the solution has to be agreed upon also by Israel.

"Barak said we have to find a solution for them with the Israelis, with the Americans and with us."

And you accept a formula, a solution that will say - this is not going to change the character of Israel ...

"We had in `88 in our PNC, it is clear and obvious, we had agreed upon [UN Resolutions] 242 and 338 ... and definitely we are speaking also about a part of our people, our refugees ... Why the Muslim from Russia has a right to return and the Muslim from Palestine has not the right to return? And why the Christian from Russia has the right to come and the Palestinian Christian has not the right to come?"

You understand that Israel has to keep being a Jewish state?



"Definitely, I told them we had accepted openly and officially in `88 in our PNC ..."


What can we conclude from this?  Arafat recognized Israel as a Jewish state, but he did not define exactly what that meant.  He even refused to be pinned down when asked how many Palestinians he would insist on being allowed to return to Israel between the Green Line.  Would he require Israel to accept 100,000 refugees?  500,000 refugees?   Enough refugees so that Israel's population would become 51% Jewish and 49% Palestinian?  Arafat didn't say. We can't tell from this interview.

But there is one thing we can tell from the interview.  Arafat does not accept the Jewish version of history.  He refused to acknowledge that the First Temple built by Solomon was located on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.  And, as Gershom Gorenberg writes, this would be a problem for Bibi Netanyahu:


[Benjamin Netanyahu insists that] the Palestinians must sign off on the entire Jewish narrative of the history of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan.

Speaking in Jerusalem to a delegation of leaders of American Jewish organizations, Netanyahu asked: "Do they not know that we’ve been here for the last 3,800 years? They don’t know that this is the land of the Bible? That this is where Jewish history and Jewish identity was forged?" These, of course, were rhetorical questions. Netanyahu's implication was that Palestinians understand that these truths are self-evident, as is the conclusion that Jews have the primary claim on political sovereignty over the land today—part of which Israel is willing to concede. If Palestinian negotiators aren't willing to acknowledge all this in writing through recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, he argued, it shows that they don't see an agreement with Israel as an end to the conflict.

So it is clear that what Arafat meant by a "Jewish State" is not what Netanyahu means by a "Jewish State".

There are several other points that we must keep in mind when evaluating the claim that Yasser Arafat agreed to recognize Israel as a Jewish State.

  1. Despite his claim in 1988 that the PNC would recognize Israel as a Jewish State, the PLO did not recognize the state of Israel until 1993. And even when the PLO recognized Israel at Oslo in 1993, it did not recognize it as a Jewish State.
  2. Israeli leaders did not believe Arafat in 1988 when he claimed that the PNC recognized the Jewish State of Israel. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres's immediate reaction to Arafat's speech was to dismiss it as a "cunning exercise in public relations. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir dismissed it as well. About a week later, Shamir called Arafat's peace offerings ''double talk'' intended to ''create an impression of moderation.'' He also characterized them as a "monumental act at deception.''
  3. Arafat was widely viewed as untrustworthy. Former Israeli spokesman, Uri Dromi relays an incident where Arafat only pretended to sign a treaty that he was supposed to sign in Egypt in 1994. Dromi accused Arafat of a pattern of "lies, double-talk, and gimmicks." David Brooks wrote an entire column accusing Arafat of being a "congenital liar". Charles Krauthammer wrote a column entitled "No peace until Arafat 'the liar' is gone. Arial Sharon called Arafat a "murderer" and a "pathological liar".  Those who say they believe Arafat's claim that the PNC had agreed to recognize Israel as a Jewish state need to answer several questions. Do they believe Arafat to be trustworthy, or do they believe he might have said one thing in Arabic to a Palestinian audience and another thing in English for the rest of the world to hear? IF they believe he was untrustworthy, then they need to ask whether he was lying or exaggerating when he claimed that the PNC recognized Israel as a Jewish state? IF they believe Arafat was untrustworthy, then do they have any other evidence, such as the minutes from a PNC meeting, which confirms that the PNC did, in fact, recognize Israel as a Jewish State? And if the PNC had recognized Israel as a Jewish state, then why didn't they make it official by putting it in writing at Oslo in 1993?
  4. As I showed in my previous column, demanding that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state is racist, whereas demanding that it be recognized as a state "designed for the protection of the Jews" is not. Gideon Levy hammered home just how racist this demand is in his recent Haaretz column, comparing it to the type of talk that "only the extreme fascist, neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic and xenophobic right would dare to breathe a word of." READ HIS COLUMN!
  5. As Peter Beinart points out, asking the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is asking them to sign a blank check to Israel. Not even the Israelis can agree amongst themselves what it means to be a Jewish state. It could mean a state that acknowledges its Jewish roots and encourages Jews to immigrate from around the world, but treats its minorities with respect for their rights. Or it could mean a repressive racist state that does everything it can to persecute its Palestinian minority with the goal of forcing them to leave. READ BEINART'S COLUMN.


It is blindingly clear that either the PNC never officially recognized Israel as a Jewish state, or if they did recognize Israel as a Jewish state, their recognition did not imply what Bibi Netanyahu and Israel's right wing want it to imply. Mahmoud Abbas should follow Peter Beinart's advice:

The next time Benjamin Netanyahu demands that you recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” tell him that you’ll agree on one condition. The Israeli cabinet must first agree on what “Jewish state” means.