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Did Spain recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland?

This is what an Israeli newspaper claimed. The truth is more nuanced, and sheds light on how difficult it is for international actors to accept Israel’s demands

According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, the Spanish foreign minister outlined a new policy in her speech to the UN General Assembly last week. The headline chosen by the newspaper was “Spain recognizes Israel as Jewish homeland”. According to the article’s text, the Spanish minister also argued that “the issue of Palestinian refugees should be solved in such a way that it does not compromise Israel’s current demographic makeup of a Jewish majority.”

If that was an accurate depiction of Spain’s position, it could be an important (and, in my opinion, worrying) harbinger of an international inclination to accept Israeli demands on these topics. However, the truth is more nuanced and fuzzy than that.

The Spanish foreign minister’s full remarks (PDF) were indeed interesting. On the issue of a “Jewish state”, she says (as Ha’aretz almost fully quotes in the main body of the text):

I wish to underline Spain’s commitment to the State of Israel as the embodiment of the project to create a homeland for the Jewish people.

Diplomatic speech tends to be intentionally hedged, and this statement is no exception. It establishes several degrees of separation between the State of Israel and its Jewish character. Firstly, by referring to “the project to create” a Jewish homeland, rather than the homeland itself, it places the Jewishness of the state in a historical context, as a project that can presumably be completed or at least wound down. Secondly, it refers to a “Jewish homeland” rather than a “Jewish state”, indicating that Israel should be a home for the Jews, rather than embrace a character that is internally biased in their favor. Thirdly, it does not say that Israel “is” the Jewish homeland, but that it embodies the project to create one. In other words, it implies that this is one of the elements that define Israel, rather than the exclusive core of its identity.

Admittedly, this formulation is unlikely to satisfy the Palestinians, or anyone who does not have the time or patience for such semantic gymnastics. However, it does point to the elephant in the room: Palestinian citizens in Israel. The Spanish squirming is meant to answer Israel’s demands, without in any way legitimizing the massive discrimination and exclusion of these citizens. This is a trick that many other international players would like to replicate. But it is unlikely to be successful. After all, one of the main thrusts behind the Israeli push on this issue is precisely the drive to enshrine Jews as first class citizens, and validate their ownership of the state.

The Israeli government’s other major motive in demanding Palestinian recognition of the Jewishness of the state relates to the other point stressed by Ha’aretz: the Palestinian refugee issue. Here, the newspaper clearly misrepresents the Spanish position, by avoiding the direct quote, which is as follows:

Also, the solution to be given to the painful drama of the Palestinian refugees shall be just and agreed upon by all parties concerned, allowing the preservation of Israel’s current character.

This position represents yet another diplomatic maneuver around a seemingly unresolvable impasse. Israel refuses to accept the return of Palestinian refugees to its territory (although some leaders have been willing to consider symbolic gestures on “family re-unification”). Ha’aretz is right to interpret the Spanish position as accepting this Israeli refusal. Indeed, it is likely that no serious international actor believes a resolution of the conflict will involve the return of refugees into Israel.

Yet, they still find it very difficult to come out and say it. Why? Because it is very hard to deny the legitimacy of the Palestinian claim. The right of people who were forced to flee from their country to return to it, after the conflict ends, is a widely accepted principle, and a strongly intuitive one at that. It was of the cornerstones of the agreement on Bosnia, 16 years ago.

The practicality of this principle in the context of Israel/Palestine is another matter. But outright endorsement of the Israeli position is so difficult, that even a clearly sympathetic Spanish foreign minister has to vaguely talk about “allowing the preservation of Israel’s current character”, a formula that could easily enable to return of many more refugees than Israel would ever accept, although certainly not all of them.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. The Spanish phrase “allowing the preservation of Israel’s current character” is very interesting. What on earth can it have meant to signify?

      Israel’s present character is, for example, to make vastly destructive war and attacks on weak neighbors. does Spain mean that THAT should be preserved? How about discrimination against non-Jews inside pre-1967 Israel? to be preserved? How about consistently and brazenly violating international law for 44 years? Israel’s “character”? Sure. To be preserved?

      Just because some Israelis like to speak of “Israel’s character” and make it clear that by this phrase THEY mean a Jewish majority (or a Jewish VOTING majority, if the residents of the occupied territories are ALL counted, and not just the Jews who are present illegally), it does not follow that Spain means the same thing.

      I hope that Spain does not clarify this obscurity. diplomats are used to obscurity and are also used to not clarifying.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Bosko

      “If that was an accurate depiction of Spain’s position, it could be an important (and, in my opinion, worrying) harbinger of an international inclination to accept Israeli demands on these topics”
      .
      No, can’t have that. After all, the Jewish people are not entitled to a state of their own. Most other historically oppressed national groups who vie for self determination are classified as liberation movements. But when it comes to the Jewish people, nah, it’s a worrying trend. Amazing.

      Reply to Comment
    3. AT

      “The right of people forced to flee from their country to return to it, after the conflict ends, is a widely accepted principle” this statement is nonsensical. Tens of millions of refugees who fled their homes during WWII were settled right where they fled, to avoid future ethnic conflicts. And millions upon millions of refugees were created in the Indian subcontinent during it’s partition. None have been or will ever be resettled. And you can be sure the Arab countries will not be taking back Jewish refugees who fled in 1948. Resettlement only happens in rare circumstances when the refugees have only recently been exiled.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Hostage

      “The right of people forced to flee from their country to return to it, after the conflict ends, is a widely accepted principle” this statement is nonsensical.

      Well At you had better tell that to the 193 states that have ratified the 4th Geneva Convention. It has been recognized as a codification of customary international law.

      The authors of the official commentary on Article 8 Non-Renunciation of Rights. Yhey said: “This Article, although entirely new, is closely linked with the preceding Article, and has the same object — namely, to ensure that protected persons in all cases without exception enjoy the protection of the Convention until they are repatriated. It is the last in the series of articles designed to make that protection inviolable — Article 1 (application in all circumstances), Article 6 on the duration of application, and Article 7 prohibiting agreements in derogation of the Convention.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Bosko

      Hey then, why wasn’t it so between India and Pakistan? And how come nobody is jumping up and down about that? But back to the Arab Israeli conflict. How come the people who are waxing lyrical about the Palestinian Arab refugees never bother mentioning the 700,000 Jewish refugees who had to flee from various Arab countries? How come … ???

      Reply to Comment
    6. RichardNYC

      @Roi
      “Yet, they still find it very difficult to come out and say it. Why? Because it is very hard to deny the legitimacy of the Palestinian claim. The right of people who were forced to flee from their country to return to it, after the conflict ends, is a widely accepted principle, and a strongly intuitive one at that. It was of the cornerstones of the agreement on Bosnia, 16 years ago.”
      —>Huh? Its very easy to deny the claim – your data point is an outlier and an anachronism.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Roi Maor

      Regarding the right of return – there is a fundamental difference between recognizing the right *in principle*, and deciding its practicality as part of solving a conflict. The point of my example regarding Bosnia was exactly this – that despite the numerous precedents of refugees not returning in practice, this right is still considered valid. I have specifically argued that Spain is opposed to the right of return in practice, but has difficulty coming out against it in principle. Whether this position is consistent or reasonable, it is nonetheless clearly the position of almost all international actors.

      Regarding Jewish state – I did not say, nor imply, nor can my words be interpreted to imply, that I deny Jews’ right to self-determination. The argument is over whether the fulfillment of this right must entail downgrading Israeli Palestinian citizens to second-class status. Anyhow, what was “worrying” in my opinion was the harm that accepting such a precondition would do to the prospect of ever reaching an agreement – an agreement which is clearly in Israel’s own interest.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Bosko

      “what was “worrying” in my opinion was the harm that accepting such a precondition would do to the prospect of ever reaching an agreement – an agreement which is clearly in Israel’s own interest”
      .
      Lets be accurate about this. The only ‘precondition’ here is the insistence that the so called right of return MUST be accepted. I repeat what we said above, nowhere else was it accepted. Not between India/Pakistan, not after WW2 and certainly not with regards to the 700,000 Jewish refugees that the Arabs created. But if Israel WOULD be foolish enough to accept it, even only in principle, it would create a rod for it’s own back. It would offer the Arabs another pretext to attack Israel anytime they choose to. Not that they need an excuse, but why legitimise what they do?
      .
      The only way that there ever will be peace between Arabs and Jews is when we convince them that in order to be respected, they need to offer respect too. The only way Israel will compromise on some things is if they compromiae too, like on the issue of the so called right of return.

      Reply to Comment

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