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Notes from UN: Say we're Jewish! Say it! Say it and we'll stop!

Abbas and Netanyahu are speaking about the same thing, but refusing to understand one another’s narrative

When I sat down and interviewed the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, Jordan earlier this year, one of the questions I asked him was if he would ever consider recognizing Israel as a Jewish State. He answered in two parts. First, he argued that such considerations go beyond the four principles agreed upon in Oslo, and he accused Netanyahu of adding more qualifications for negotiations. Second, he said that the Palestinians already recognized the State of Israel in Oslo, and that if that State wants to refer to itself as the Jewish State or the Hebrew State of the Zionist State, it was none of his business. He said Israel was free to go to the United Nations and change its name, without Abbas’ approval.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas interviewed by Roee Ruttenberg for CCTV (photo: CCTV)

It’s true, for example, that Tehran did not wait for approval from anyone before it officially became the Islamic Republic of Iran. It simply did so. Yet on Friday afternoon in New York, speaking before world leaders gathered at the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu again stressed the need for the Palestinians to recognize Israel’s Jewish character. It was so important to Netanyahu that he made reference to it on a number of occasions.

Abbas remains unmoved. Here’s why? For one, he fears that recognizing Israel’s Jewish character is essentially selling out the Palestinians living in Israel (i.e. Israeli-Arabs or Palestinian-Israelis, or however you wish to describe the Arabs living inside Israel-proper and holding Israeli citizenship.) He is also afraid of alienating those Palestinians living outside of Israel (whose families fled what is now present-day Israel) who still have deeds and keys from their former residences handing on their walls. Remember, Abbas is not just the President of the Palestinian Authority (the body that governs the West Bank and, technically though not practically, the Gaza Strip). Arguably more importantly, as head of Fatah, he is also the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. (And indeed, he spoke at the UN wearing the latter hat, not the former.) Netanyahu should realize that he is asking for the impossible from Abbas. Perhaps, some have argued, he does realize it, which is why he keeps asking.

Netanyahu and Sharansky, February 2010 (photo: Jewish Agency/flickr cc)

But ultimately, Abbas also fails to understand why such a validation of the State’s Jewish character is so important to the Israelis. Israel has a uniquely Jewish character not found anywhere else in the world, and the significance of that uniqueness should not be overlooked. It is not just the kosher food, the limited public transport on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), and the Hebrew spoken in the street. For amid all the domestic tensions at home , many feel Israel’s Jewish institutions are eroding, its Jewishness essentially fizzling out. (This fear is further strengthened by campaigns against intermarriage both in Israel and in the Jewish Diaspora.) So reaffirmations like the one asked of Abbas, which are sold as costing Israel nothing, can help calm the nerves of soothsayers predicting the demise of the country’s Jewish character.

I arrived back in Tel Aviv just hours before the two leaders spoke at the UN podium. Boarding the El Al flight in Madrid, I noticed the big blue Star of David emblazed on the plane. It was clearly advertising itself not just as the national carrier of a state, but as the national carrier of a Jewish State. And it bears the burden – both financially and in terms of security – for doing so. First, the ground crew (the guys loading the planes) appeared to be imported Israelis. That’s a lot of added costs that a non-Jewish identified airline does not have. The flight’s departure was delayed, so naturally so too was its arrival. There was a concern onboard that the flight would arrive after the start of Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), religiously timed to coincide on Friday with sundown. I asked an attendant, were the flight to arrive late, what would happen. I was told that in the past when it did occur, religious Jews who were thus unable to get home stayed at the airport and were welcomed (with Shabbat meals) by members of the airport-adjacent Orthodox village, Kfar Chabad. If this doesn’t define a country’s unique Jewish character, I’m not sure what does.

El Al wingtip at airport (photo: seraphya/flickr cc)

Actually, that’s not true – I know what does. We finally landed and everyone rushed off the plane into the airport terminal and towards the baggage claim. Approaching immigration, I noticed a massive sign that read in English and in Hebrew, “Happy New Year” and “Shana Tova.” Beneath the sign to the right was posted a large mezuzah (an affixed encasing with an inscribed parchment inside). I am not sure what other country in the world would welcome its people in that way, in that uniquely Jewish way.

Ben Gurion airport "Shana Tova" greeting (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)

That feeling of being “home”, of being part of a nation like other nations but Jewish in nature, of having a leader on the stage with other world leaders but Jewish in his dedication to his people and loyalties to their culture, is not something that should easily be given up. And perhaps upon his return, walking through the “Shana tova” archway, Netanyahu will realize it’s something no one else can take from him, give to him, or validate for him.

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    1. David

      As someone who prefers secular democracies and hasn’t seen a theocracy he could stand anywhere on earth, please don’t ask me to endorse Israel as a Jewish state. It managed to damage democracy within only a few short years. I don’t want the Tea Party Dominionists here to be encouraged by your Zionist policies, so pardon me if I in fact note that I would prefer that Israel NOT be a Jewish state. All this said, don’t expect the Palestinians to endorse Israel as a Jewish state either.

      Reply to Comment
    2. David

      I forgot to mention — what I think is unimportant to Israelis. You won’t give up Zionism even if I disapprove. So why should you pester me for an endorsement? And why bother pestering the Palestinians after treating them so shabbily for 63 years? For non-Jews Israel is no paradise.

      Reply to Comment
    3. mcebacal

      I’m unsure why this article is labeled “News” and not “Commentary” or something similar…is there not a clear distinction? This is not reporting at all but editorializing.

      Reply to Comment
    4. grub

      I agree re editorializing – and a clear bias. It seems to me there’s a simple solution. Since “Jewishness” apparently no longer has religious significance – witness the large number of Russians with no religious affiliations who have emigrated to Israel as “Jews” – proclaim everyone living in Israel and the occupied territories to be Jewish – even if they are practicing muslims. After all there is no problem in declaring atheists to be Jews, and apparently according to Wikipedia more than 200 Jews converted to Islam between 2000 and 2008. Did they cease to be Jews? Remember Herzl once suggested the conversion of Jews to Catholicism.

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    5. Louis

      Nice, but Israel is more about feelings of chicken soup, mezuzot on every public building etc… If Israel really wants “recognition” as a Jewish State it should go the distance and guarantee its status as a democratic state… i.e. constitution & declaration of civil, human (and social/cultural) rights… This would guarantee that even if Israel becomes the “Jewish Democratic Republic of Israel” the Jewish character… you know of warm fuzzy shabbat shaloms Lag B’Omer Campfires and lots of Debby Friedman (Z’L) songs… will not be cause to deny minorities, namely Palestinians of their rights… Abbas can in turn demand repealing all laws that preserve Jewish Ethnocracy in Israel as a condition of such recognition… the Nakaba law, the Citizenship law, the community “welcome” committee law… etc… he can even, as a gesture leave Right of Return Law in place… after all who is coming these days anyway…

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    6. John

      All of these points are true…that Israel acts as a Jewish state, with particularly Jewish character, that welcomes people home with “Shanah Tovah” during the Jewish New Year.

      None of these points begins to address why the leader of a foreign state should – alone – be required to recognize this state as “Jewish” (or anything else). That’s for Israel to do. If this issue is so important, Israel should change its name at the UN, as Abbas suggested.

      Reply to Comment
    7. David

      Great piece, Roee.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Nathan

      Welcome to The Jewish Republic of Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Palestinian

      They are paranoid about their “Jewishness” claiming its not only a religious belief but an ethno-religious identity.To take lies as facts is okay but dont impose them on others.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Nancy

      Good points, David and John. But also important to remember that ‘recognize as Jewish state’ is code to prevent right of return. According to Israel’s ambassador to UN last night on Charlie Rose, this claim of right to return is, I quote, ‘laughable’ and he demands the Palestinian leadership communicate clearly to Palestinians that these claims are mere illusions that Palestinians must ‘get over’.

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    11. AT

      What is the difference between the Palestinian demand Israel recognize their “right if return” & Bibi’s insistence on Israel being the state of the Jews? In both cases there is some belief in some magical spirit passed along genetically. After all, what connection to most Palestinians who have never been born in Palestine have to the land and it’s ownership? A non magical thinker would argue the land belongs only to the people who currently live there, and the feelings of people who don’t live there are irrelevant. Since the people who do live there can’t get along, they need to be split into separately ruled regions. This is nothing new or strange, and has nothing to do with religion nor is it contrary to democracy. the Czech republic and Slovakia are both ethnographic democracies created by peoples who couldn’t get along together in one state.

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    12. Palestinian

      @ AT , our right of return is based on UN resolutions ,our deeds and keys ,birth certificates, their claim is based on a religious belief.Americans born outside the USA to American parents are granted the US citizenship and are allowed to live in the states.Israel doesnt allow refugees who were born there to visit their homes.I cant believe you even made such a comparison.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Deïr Yassin

      @ AT
      What is an “ethnographic democracy” ? Never heard that before, don’t think it exists. Is it a new slogan from the Hasbara Manual for Beginners ?

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    14. bandora etrog


      you say: After all, what connection to most Palestinians who have never been born in Palestine have to the land and it’s ownership?

      i say: After all, what connection to most jews who have never been born in israel have to the land and it’s ownership?

      and then you say “and the feelings of people who don’t live there are irrelevant”. you forgot to add: except for any jew not born in israel

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    15. Jan

      Years ago Arafat and the PLO recognized Israel It made no difference in the lieves of the Palestininians. The occupation continued. The brutality continued. The theft of Palestinian land continued. The building of illegal settlements continued as it does today.

      I am certain that were the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state all the above would continue.

      This is one Jew who long ago rejected Zionism and any notion of a Jewish statel

      I gave up my so-called “right of return” until Palestinians have the same right.

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    16. Roee, this is a nice description of what it means to be a jewish state, but doesn’t suffice to refute Abbas’ point. if we are really so strong in our identity, our strength comes from within and we shouldn’t need any outsider, least of all a not-yet-nascent state struggling tooth and nail for its own recognition, to provide affirmation as the key to peace. And to hold our survival (peace) hostage to that outside affirmation, from the weakest kid on the block, is cynical and insulting to my identity. If I’m sure of myself, i don’t need anyone else to tell me who i am.

      Reply to Comment
    17. directrob

      Why would a state want to be “Jewish”? If I were a state I would be deeply insulted when other states would call me “Atheist”, “Christian” or “Jewish”. I would want to be a state for all people within my borders.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Funny little note to add: as I was walking towards passport control and saw the “Shana Tova” sign and the giant mezuzah, I thought “ahhh, this is Israel” and took a picture. About 3 seconds later I was yelled at by security for taking a picture – he presumed – of the passport control area, a “security-sensitive” zone, and I thought “uchh, this is Israel.”

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    19. Henry Weinstein

      Psychiatry should be an obligatory grade in the West Bank school system to help the Palestinian kids to learn how to deal with the Jew Asylum’s patients.
      At least the UN could finance this program.
      “Enough!”, Mahmoud Abbas testified.
      They don’t want to be sedated.

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    20. Philos

      Dahlia Scheindlin’s comments are entirely correct. France never required of the German’s to recognize them as the nation-state of the French people to make peace with them. Also it is about time that the double-standard between the Law of Return and the Right of Return be discussed; how is it that a 2000-year old refugee problem (so to speak) can be legitimately resolved in the Levant yet a 63-year old refugee problem is “irrelevant” and “ancient history”?

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    21. Philos

      I would also add that to outsiders the Jewish Israelis insecurity with their identity is pretty unfathomable. In large part this because huge investments have been made in the former, Jewish, over the latter, Israeli. Indeed, making Israeli’s more Israeli is considered threatening to the Jewish character of the Israeli state by most people, which just goes to show how far we are into the the theater of the absurd to quote the Honorable Mr. Netenyahu. And he should know for he is an honorable man. It’s this insecurity with their identity that allowed them to permit the Orthodox stream to monopolize religious practices in Israel. Whereas Diaspora Jews have healthy arguments about their identity and have a rich variety of streams to choose from in Israel there is no debate. A secular questions some aspect of Judaism and a bearded kippa wearer tells him to shut up because he’s not religious enough to understand.

      All in all we should not be projecting our internal insecurities and national psychoses on to the hapless Palestinians

      Reply to Comment
    22. Henry Weinstein

      The most absurd thing for me is to consider Israel is not enough a Jewish name. Alors là!
      To think the state of Israel was founded by secular Jews who had enough to be stigmatized & persecuted for being of Jewish descent by antisemitic intellectuals & hatred mobs in Europe and the Middle East…
      It looks like the Stockholm Syndrome this frenzy to judaize everything on the land of Israel, no?
      Maybe all this is to ‘prove’ Zionism means something in 2011.
      But actually it’s not Zionism, it’s something else their Zionism.
      For a sane person, Zionism was the political project to found the state of Israel and ensure self-determination for the future generations. But after 1967 Zionism became an absurd ideology preventing the Israelis to feel themselves Israeli; a normal people living and fighting for his freedom.
      I mean, it became an Occupation, Zionism.
      In the same time we, in the disapora, were and are ‘invited’ to consider Israel as our homeland! We are asked to support blindly any action of the government of Israel ’cause each time the very existence of the Jewish people is under existential threat…
      Meanwhile born-again antisemitism is very happy to insult us in the name of anti-zionism & anti-apartheid. Happy hatred people.
      Even here on 972.
      It’s easy for them.
      All these new Israeli-Jewish mushroom bills like Russian dolls…
      Above all: the cynical abuse of Judaism for convenient short-term political & business motives, just like in Iran with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
      What’s wrong with Israel the homeland of the Israeli people?
      Not enough Hebrew?

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    23. Bosko

      Philos says …
      “Dahlia Scheindlin’s comments are entirely correct. France never required of the German’s to recognize them as the nation-state of the French people to make peace with them”
      What a great analogy, NOT! I was never aware that Germany ever declared an express intent to destroy the nation sate of the French people and replace it with another nation state of the German people. Then relentlessly pursue that intent for 63 years. Compare that to clear declarations by the Palestinian Arabs to replace Israel with a state of their own people and their own religion. Hamas has still not renounced that and Fatah barely disguise their intent to emulate Hamas albeit, by using different tactics.
      Philos also says …
      “Also it is about time that the double-standard between the Law of Return and the Right of Return be discussed; how is it that a 2000-year old refugee problem (so to speak) can be legitimately resolved in the Levant yet a 63-year old refugee problem is “irrelevant” and “ancient history”?”
      Attaboy … Go for it. Let 5 million Palestinian Arabs into Israel in order to avoid such “hypocrisy”. Only deluded leftist Jews consider it to be hypocritical for a nation to pursue self preservation. Good luck with that. But don’t complain afterwards when your Arab “brothers” will not be as altruistic as you and will put even people like you in your place. You too will be just another Jew, if you know what I mean, nudge nudge wink wink …

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    24. Henry Weinstein

      @ Nathan
      “Welcome to the Jewish Republic of Israel”: great line, God’s Republic instead of Plato’s Republic!
      But by the way notice how the word “Republic” is taboo in Israel, ’cause of its modern (French) meaning. What the Israeli politicians have in mind, and it’s hilarious, is the ancient GREEK Athenian concept of democracy: democracy for an elected oligarchy, but not for metics & slaves…
      After all in the real world Israel is a city-state (Tel-Aviv), like was Athens or Carthago, even if the Israeli politicians pretend Jerusalem is the capital!

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    25. Bosko

      The “slaves” in Israel have more democratic lives than the “free” Arabs in their own countries. And if the Arabs would not be pursuing a relentless war against the Jewish state, the Arabs of Israel would have even greater freedom.
      This expectation that Israel should just forget that it’s under siege and offer a utopia in which it’s minority citizens should be free to pursue an agenda to destroy the state, is obscene. No, Israel is not perfect but it is probably better than many other countries who were/are at war and who introduced much more draconian measures than Israel in order to protect their own freedom.
      Why do some people expect more from Israel than from their own countries or anyone else for that matter … ?

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    26. Henry Weinstein

      @ Bosko
      In short, I just think Israel would be a much more stronger and saner country if the Israeli people, the real one who is still struggling for social justice but everybody in the media & activistsphere is backing the return to “politique-spectacle”, was endoresed & recognized instead of the “Jewish people” ‘official fiction.
      That was my point on this thread
      And yes I’m proud to say I’m expecting more from Israel than any other country apart France: because I care, and because I want more.

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    27. Henry Weinstein

      Errata: endorsed

      Reply to Comment
    28. Bosko

      The trouble with you is that you are an idealist and a bit of adreamer. The rest of us have to live in the real world.
      Also, the Jewish people are not an official fiction. I have no problems with you choosing to describe yourself as a French man of Juif descent, I assume that’s how you refer to yourself? But equally you should not object to other Jews who feel that they are part of the Jewish people as in nation, not in a religious sense. After all that’s democracy too isn’t it? If the Palestinian Arabs are a separate people, Palestinians rather than Arabs then the Jewish people too are entitled to think of themselves as a nation. Especially since it is historically true and everyone else always thought of us as ‘the other’.

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    29. Henry Weinstein

      @ Bosko
      Sorry, but here you are the idealist, the dreamer. More accurately: lost in ideology.
      My point on this thread is very clear: I think it’s totally irrealist and morally wrong to use the ‘Jewish people’ tag to justify Israeli internal politics & short-term political & business motives.
      Not in my name, do you understand?
      I’m not the only one in the Diaspora who can’t stand anymore this corruption of Judaism by politicians & businessmen.!

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    30. Bosko

      Hold on there. I have not said anything that you imply that I said. I talked about the Jewish people as a nation. That has nothing to do with the current Israeli government or any other Israeli government. It is a concept on it’s own.
      Some people claim that there is no such a thing as a Jewish people. That we are just a religion. We, those of us who see ourselves as part of the Jewish people, beg to differ with those people who wish to deny our existence. Why? Because as an entirely non religious person, I still see myself as Jewish. Explain that.
      I’ll say it again, Netanyahu has nothing to do with it, nor his government nor is ANY ideology.

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    31. Henry Weinstein

      @ Bosko
      “Because as an entirely non religious person, I still see myself as Jewish. Explain that”.
      Oh, it’s easy for me to explain that, but it took all my life to find the words!
      The funny thing, as usual with G, is it’s RELIGIOUS, but not in the formal & normative sense.
      Consider we are all like Jonas thinking life would be so easier if Judaism was just for us, a tribal thing, ‘Jewishness’ in short. BUT notice how we can’t help but question the world around us, thinking and saying “What a limited & ridiculous world!”, “How can they ask us to believe we are godlike!”, and so on.
      And that’s why Hatred always welcome us, even we are not formally religious or converted to another religion: we are such a pain in the ass of human pretension!!
      There is no escape, Jonas tried, Prophets tried, it’s in us, we are ‘doomed’!
      We have been chosen to question the world, to say we don’t believe it’s a serious world, this human godlike world, that’s our mission.

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    32. Bosko

      You have done it again. You made me laugh with your explanation of why I feel Jewish. Laugh in a good way. But you must admit that everything that you said, confirms my claim that there is a Jewish nation.
      I will discuss with you, on another day, your point that we are such a pain. There are some days that I agree with you, like when I come to +972 and see the extraordinary effort being invested by some of the journalists and bloggers here to defame ourselves. Why oh why, as you say, can’t we people be just a bit less complicated at times and get on with the business using the chance that we got to rebuild our nation? I guess this complicatedness is both our weakness and our strength but sometimes it really exasperates me.

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    33. @Bosko, I am a fan seeing dialogues like this going. But just to chime in here as one of the +972 journalists “here to defame ourselves.” Being critical of the Israeli government and holding the Israeli people to a high standard, and keeping positions of policy in check, is not defamation … it is journalism. It is a pillar of democracy. It is the responsibility of the press. Most of the media here (and that claiming to report from Israel) seem to have forgotten it … but I care less about them. I care about “us.” And as a member of that “us,” yes, you are right, I hold Israel to a higher standard. I watch what’s going on in some of these other countries and how the would respond in a similar situation, but it’s irrelevant because founding fathers promised a country above others, a country of higher standards … “we” were meant to be a light to the other nations of the world. Sound familiar, yes? That’s the reason behind the high bar … and holding “us” to it is hardly defamation — it’s public service.

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    34. Bosko

      @Roee Ruttenberg
      First, let me say that I am all for democracy and the duty of journalists to uphold it by reporting without fear or favour about the government of the day. However there is a fine line between doing that, reporting on facts and even editoriolasing which is ok as against embarking on a sustained campaign to push the individual ideology and agenda of the journalist/s, which IMHO is not ok. Unfortunately, all too often I get the feeling that it’s more the latter and less of the former. Please accept this as a general comment about this site not necessarily directed at you personally.
      Now here is where I disagree with you personally. I believe that Israel, a small country, with relatively limited resources, surrounded by enemies and vilified by many can ill afford the luxury of amplifying that vilification by pretending that we can hold ourselves to higher standards than anyone else. Why? Simply because if we don’t meet those standards then we end up looking worse than anyone else. Let’s just hold ourselves to normal standards and try to achieve that. Even that can be hard work, given the ruthless tactics that our enemies are willing to use against us. In the same vein, we also disagree about this ‘light unto the nations’ stuff, or the chosen people etc. I think we should be content at ensuring our own survival and to build a viable future for our children. Those sentiments never won us any friends in the past, nor did we impress anyone with it. To the contrary, it brought us derision and it made our job more difficult. A double disadvantage. I think we should be smart enough to learn from our past mistake and move on. Ok, the perhaps the reason why I am so blase about discarding that standard is because I favour pragmatism over dogma. Maybe I am wrong about it but that’s the way I feel …

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    35. Bosko

      @Roee Ruttenberg
      Let me illustrate the sort of damage that unthinking uncritical writing can cause Israel in the midst of the siege that it is in. I know that Benny Morris is a historian, not a journalist but what he wrote, caused a lot of misunderstandings and gave a lot of ammunition to our enemies. He himself has now came to understand this and attempted to correct the damage that he caused but the damage that he did cannot be undone. Here is an example of somene misquoting Benny on +972, here, see the comment by Warren Metzler ….
      “… all the work of SABRA ISRAELI historians in the past 20 years, including stone cold right wing Zionists like Bennie Morris, to continue to claim Israel was EVER threatened by Arab forces, including the 1948 war; they have always had the upper hand in all the Israeli Arab conflicts from 1948”
      Benny has always been a leftist but now he is being labelled a right winger because he tried to correct the damage that he caused. Couldn’t he have waited till after a peace deal before he published what he did? I know that it may have been a personal sacrifice to him if he did. But are the results worth it? Especially since our enemies don’t even bother to quote what he actually said. They just use half truths and the controvesy that he created.

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    36. Gabe

      You miss the point. Bibi is not asking for “validation” from Abbas. That would be silly.

      The gambit is to show that the PLO engaged in Oslo from the beginning with the intention of making a two-state peace — two Palestinian states. This was, of course, dishonest from the beginning; to recognize “Israel” while intending on pressing for a full “right” of return which would inevitably turn “Israel” into a Palestinian state is inherently dishonest.

      Calling on Abbas to recognize Israel’s Jewish character is simply to test whether the Palestinians are truly ready to make a real two-state peace, not some mealy-mouthed wordplay recognizing “Israel” as the second Palestinian state.

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    37. John

      Re: the right of return, and whether getting Abbas to recognize it is important to its maintenance.

      These issues are totally unrelated. Abbas and the Palestinians will have no say in the matter – they will be an independent state. Israel can continue the right of return whether Abbas (or anyone else) objects or not. Two sovereign states, making their own decisions. The nomenclature (“Jewish” “Zionist” “Purple”) makes no difference.

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    38. Bosko

      Not quite John. Since 1949, the Palestinian Arabs used the right of return demand and the refugees as a pretext to make war on Israel. Israel has agreed to give up land for peace in exchange, it has every right to demand that the Palestinian Arabs should formally renounce their decades old pretext to make war. That’s the least that the Arabs can do. After all they would get something concrete (land) in exchange for just a promise.

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    39. Al

      Anyone is free to convert to Judaism and immigrate to Israel. All these folks waving keys and deeds in the air, should adapt that strategy. They can have their homes back, and they can serve in the Israel Army like all other Israelis. If they reject this easy path – I will call them out for actually only wanting to Islamicize the land and turn everyone else into dhimmis.

      Reply to Comment
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