JERUSALEM (AP) — Is Israel "the Jewish state"?
The answer may seem as obvious as the Star of David on the Israeli flag. Yet the question is starting to complicate the ambitious U.S. effort to ram through a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel.
A broad-based group of Israelis plans to lobby the Knesset to declare the country, for the first time, a Jewish state by law. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel's Jewish status explicitly as part of any agreement.
"This is the Jewish land. This is the Jewish state," he said in a speech this week to assembled U.S. Jewish leaders. "When we make an agreement it is an agreement between the nation state of the Jewish people and a nation state of the Palestinian people."
Leading Palestinians made their opposition clear this week, insisting that by introducing the Jewish factor, Israel is drawing a red line that could doom negotiations.
"I remember the days when we were told, 'All you need is to get the PLO to recognize Israel, and recognize Israel's right to exist in safe and secure boundaries," said Hanan Ashrawi, a prominent member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The Palestinians did just that, she noted, as part of the 1990s interim peace agreements.
"The Jewishness of the state of Israel . this is a new addition," she told reporters Wednesday. "We are working to establish a pluralistic, democratic, inclusive state in Palestine. Not an exclusive state based on religion, ethnicity or whatever."
The Palestinians reject Israel's demand for pragmatic reasons as well: Embrace of Israel as a Jewish state would amount to giving up the dreams of Palestinian refugees to return to lost properties — the so-called "right of return" which is a central sticking point in peace talks. They also say it would undermine the rights of Israel's own Arab minority, the 20 percent of Israel's 8 million people who are themselves ethnic Palestinians.