Arafat and Recognizing the Jewish State
Arafat and Recognizing the Jewish State

n his appearance before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs on March 13, 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry, convener, main proponent, and mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process, found it necessary to make a surprisingly one-sided comment and prejudgment on one of the central and most delicate issues on the negotiating table – Israel’s basic and principled requirement of recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish People.

Kerry opined that he views Israel’s position “as a mistake,” considering that the “Jewish State” issue was “sufficiently addressed by UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, which recommended the establishment of independent Arab and Jewish states in Palestine.”1 He said there are “more than 30–40 mentions of a ‘Jewish state’” in the resolution, and added that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat “confirmed that he agreed it [Israel] would be a Jewish state” in 1988 and in 2004. 

It would appear that once again, as with previous one-sided and pre-judgmental statements, Secretary Kerry has either been ill-advised or is deliberately engaged in an effort to neutralize the “Jewish State” issue in the current negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He is doing so by attempting to determine that the question of Palestinian support for a Jewish state was already resolved by PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 1988, and is therefore redundant and unnecessary.

In so doing, Secretary Kerry even cited a questionable quotation by Yasser Arafat himself from 7 December 1988 – in which the PLO Chairman says that “the PNC has accepted two states: a Palestine state and Jewish state – between brackets ‘Israel’” (sic).

However, despite the willingness of Kerry and others to view this as retroactive evidence of Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, the truth is just the opposite: the U.S. administration that then labored to persuade Arafat to meet the initial goal of recognizing Israel’s right to exist did not believe Arafat’s words at that time satisfied even this lesser demand.

The 1988 statement of Yasser Arafat relied upon by Kerry does not come close to meeting the bar of the current requirement – of Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and many others within the international community – for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish People.

The Historical Record

In the last quarter of 1988, an intense effort was undertaken by then Swedish Foreign Minister Sten Anderson to facilitate the opening of a diplomatic dialogue between the PLO and the United States. Previously, all U.S. administrations had strictly adhered to U.S. commitments, originally given by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Israeli Foreign Minister Yigal Allon, that required the PLO to recognize Israel, accept UN Security Council Resolution 242, and renounce terrorism as prerequisites for any dialogue between the parties.

Anderson’s efforts were one of the factors behind Arafat’s decision to issue a Palestinian declaration of independence at the Palestinian National Council (PNC) meeting in Algiers on 15 November 1988.

Significantly, Arafat did not issue a clear declaration recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, but only summarized the language of UN General Assembly Resolution 181, which he employed simply to provide a legal basis for the Palestinian state. The U.S. government concluded that Arafat’s statement did not meet Washington’s demand that the PLO unequivocally recognize the State of Israel, and thus no dialogue was launched between the United States and the PLO at that time.

A further, widely publicized meeting was arranged in Stockholm by Swedish Foreign Minister Anderson with selected U.S. Jewish leaders, at which Arafat issued another statement, intended to gain American consent to open an official dialogue.

This was rejected yet again by the United States, and at a special UN General Assembly session convened to address the Palestinian issue Arafat failed yet again to utter the language required by the U.S. Only after inordinate pressure exerted on him did he then begrudgingly issue a statement approximating what the U.S. had sought. Even the descriptive characterization of Resolution 181 was not repeated in the final version issued by Arafat.

The significance of this historical account is that the PNC declaration of independence and Arafat’s account of its substance in Stockholm did not satisfy the requirements of the United States at that time for opening a diplomatic dialogue.

Secretary Kerry’s attempt to represent these events as proof that the Palestinian leadership has already recognized Israel as the Jewish state is a clear distortion of the historical record.

In fact, what Arafat appears to have said in the clip is completely false. The Palestinian National Council has not accepted the Jewish state. It would be incorrect to infer otherwise.

The opposite is in fact the case. The “Palestinian National Charter,” the founding document of the “moderate” Fatah organization, as ratified by the Sixth General Assembly of the Fatah Movement in Bethlehem in August 2009, which elected Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to head the organization, approved a plan that included the principle of “absolute irrevocable opposition to recognition of Israel as a ‘Jewish state,’ to protect the rights of refugees and the rights of our people [Israeli Arabs] beyond the Green Line.”2

In numerous statements over the past weeks, and true to the mandate of the Palestinian National Charter, Palestinian leaders and spokesmen have been repeating ad nauseam their principled refusal to agree to acknowledge Israel’s character as the nation state of the Jewish People. This is not a mere political whim, but represents a strategic Palestinian position aimed at preventing, by such recognition, any future attempt to deny a potential future mass-influx of Palestinians into the State of Israel in apparent realization of a perceived “right of return.”

In fact, with a view to addressing this very issue, in Israel’s official response to the 30 April 2003 U.S. and Quartet-sponsored “Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Israel insisted on stating specifically that “In connection to both the introductory statements and the final settlement, declared references must be made to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and to the waiver of any right of return for Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel.”3

It was, in fact, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, presently Secretary Kerry’s and Mahmoud Abbas’ negotiating partner, who then drafted and insisted on inserting this proviso into Israel’s response. Secretary Kerry might consider consulting with Minister Tzipi Livni before he issues any further statements on this issue.


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Amb. Alan Baker, Director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, participated in the negotiation and drafting of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, as well as agreements and peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. He served as legal adviser and deputy director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as Israel's ambassador to Canada.