The Palestinians Want to Dance at Two Weddings

There's an old Jewish saying that no one can dance at two weddings at the same time. Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, is not Jewish, even if he claims some of his best friends are Jews. Nevertheless, living as he does in his neighborhood, he might take heed of the saying.

Unfortunately, he has not. In late December 2013, Abbas, in rejecting the proposals of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for negotiating the Arab-Israeli conflict, is reported to have rejected the Israeli stipulation that Israel be recognized as "a Jewish state."

Whatever Abbas' own interpretation of the term "a Jewish state," he is apparently unaware that the concept has been long recognized by the international community. It may be tiresome always to go back to square one of a disputed issue, yet it is vital to make the historical background clear and relevant.

In the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, the British Government viewed with favor "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." The League of Nations Mandate for Palestine given to Britain on July 24, 1922 repeated this in exactly the same language.

These two particular documents might be called the engagement parties, for which Abbas has little enthusiasm. However, he danced at the belated wedding reception of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181(II) of November 29, 1947 adopted by a vote of 33 with 13 against, 10 abstentions, and one absent.

Abbas has apparently forgotten that Resolution 181, which the Arab states and Palestinians rejected, called for the partition of the area into two states. It resolved, "Independent Arab and Jewish States, and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem shall come into existence in Palestine."

The Arabs of course did not establish their state, but the Representatives of the Jewish Community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist Movement did establish their state, which the United Nations had referred to as a Jewish state.

In Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948, the Members of the People's Council, "by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the UN General Assembly (181), declared the establishment of "a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel." The United Nations had recognized the right of the Jewish people to establish a state. The reference to Israel as a Jewish State is integral to its very creation. That sovereign state, based on the right of self-determination, had referred to itself a Jewish State as the UN had done. If Abbas sincerely wants a peaceful settlement with that state he should acknowledge its self-definition and the definition in Resolution 181 on which he bases his claim for a Palestinian state.

On September 23, 2011 Mahmoud Abbas submitted the application "of the state of Palestine" for admission to membership in the United Nations. Borrowing language used by the Zionist leaders in 1948, he submitted the application based "on the Palestinian people's natural, legal, and historic rights." But more important, he based his claim on the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 (II).

Abbas can't dance at two weddings at the same time, nor can have his cake and eat it. If he is declaring a Palestinian state based on Resolution 181, and if he genuinely wants a peaceful settlement, he must acknowledge the Jewish state called for in the Resolution.

The State of Israel is not changing its official name, even if it is in the words of the Balfour Declaration, " a national home for the Jewish people." It is totally different from the case with Muslim countries. At least four countries, Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, and Pakistan, officially term themselves "Islamic Republics." Even the Palestinian Basic Law of 2003 touches on the issue. Article 4 says, "Islam is the official religion in Palestine... Islamic Sharia shall be a principal source of legislation."

Within Israel, and indeed in the world wide Jewish community, there are profound differences, political and religious, about the exact nature of a "Jewish State." However, all can agree that unlike the Islamic countries mentioned, the State of Israel is not, and will not, become a theocracy, a form of government led by religious dignitaries on the basis of religious edicts. Law and tradition in Islamic countries are based on sharia law, religious law. Law in Israel, other than that concerning some personal issues, is secular, stemming from the Knesset and the courts of law.

It is unclear why Abbas has made the matter of definition of "Jewish State" such an important issue. It may be simply a device to prevent negotiations ever starting, let alone being concluded. His position in rejecting the Kerry peace proposals is really based on political differences and disputes about the historical narratives of the area. It may be based on the fallacious supposition that Israel will disenfranchise the 1.6 million Israeli Arabs.

One can agree that those Arabs do not play as prominent a role in Israeli life as do their Jewish counterparts, and that changes need to be made, but it is wholly misleading and dishonest to suggest they are second-class citizens who play no role and face discrimination, or that they would be expelled, or that they, whether Muslim and Protestant, are not completely free to practice their religious beliefs. Jewish religion and culture and tradition are not imposed on non-Jews. Has Abbas noticed that the deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset is Ahmed Tibi, founder of the Arab Movement for Change Party?

There are disputes about the history of the land. Palestinians are unwilling to accept the Jewish association with the land for three thousand years or that David established the kingdom of Israel, but these, though important elements in the Palestinian Narrative of Victimhood, are not pertinent to the present issue.

One can conclude there are really only two issues that prevent Abbas from being more forthcoming. One is the problem, now 65 years old, of the Palestinians who in 1948-49 fled the area of what is now Israel. Abbas still holds that these refugees, whose flight was caused by the Arab invasion of the newly-created state of Israel, have a "right to return" to their former homes. The 2003 Palestinian Basic Law speaks of "national rights, the foremost of which are the right of return." Objectively, it is difficult to accept that grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who fled have such a "right." Nevertheless, Abbas may see that "right" abrogated if he accepts Israel as a Jewish state.

Even more important is the existential issue. The question of future borders of any future Palestinian state and the status of East Jerusalem are difficult to resolve but they are less important that the Arab refusal to accept the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

President Abbas in his application to the UN in September 2011 did write of the "vision of two states living side by side in peace and security." It is now up to him to try to implement this vision by accepting Kerry's invitation and entering into the negotiating process.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.