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Would There Be Jews in Palestine?

Parsing the PLO ambassador; plus, what the U.N. initiative used to be

Marc Tracy
September 15, 2011
Ambassador Men Rashid Areikat.(PLO general delegation)
Ambassador Men Rashid Areikat.(PLO general delegation)

Statements this week by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s ambassador to the United States, Maen Rashid Areikat, have implied that maybe there would be Jews in a Palestinian state, maybe not. “After the experience of the last 44 years of military occupation and all the conflict and friction, I think it would be in the best interest of the two people to be separated,” he told reporters earlier this week. He then clarified, “Under no circumstances was I saying that no Jews can be in Palestine. … I never said that, and I never meant to say such a thing. This is not a religious conflict, and we want to establish a secular state.” The Center for American Progress’ Matt Duss notes that this notion originates in an interview Areikat gave a year ago … to literary editor David Samuels in Tablet Magazine. If we go that particular tape, we do find Areikat repeatedly moving toward a definition of Jewishness that is religious rather than ethnic, a premise that allows him to question both the wisdom of having Jews in Palestine and the validity of Israel’s being recognized as the Jewish state:

Everywhere in the world, Jews follow the nationality and citizenship of the country where they live. In the United States, you have American Jews, who live in the United States. You have French Jews. And this was the original argument between us and the Jews. Why can’t you be Palestinian Jews? …

At one point, we believed that Jews are followers of religion, and not a nation and a people, and I’ll tell you why. In order to be one people, one nation, you have to be homogenous. …

Israel is a political establishment that claims to represent Jews all over the world. I very much doubt that Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu represent every Jew in the world. I know there are Jews who don’t agree with Netanyahu. …

I’m not saying to transfer every Jew, I’m saying transfer Jews who, after an agreement with Israel, fall under the jurisdiction of a Palestinian state.

Any Jew who is inside the borders of Palestine will have to leave? [asked Samuels.]

Absolutely. I think this is a very necessary step, before we can allow the two states to somehow develop their separate national identities, and then maybe open up the doors for all kinds of cultural, social, political, economic exchanges, that freedom of movement of both citizens of Israelis and Palestinians from one area to another. You know you have to think of the day after.

But it becomes clear that Areikat’s real objection to recognizing Israel as the Jewish state is strategic:

Let’s say that tomorrow the Palestinian leadership comes out and says, “OK, we’re ready to recognize the Jewishness of the state.” What implications would that have, immediately, on the Palestinians? You know that in our view the refugee problem is the crux of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Today we have 6.5 million registered refugees out of 10 or 10.5 million Palestinians. One out of six refugees in the world is Palestinian. By accepting Israel’s claim now, that they are a Jewish state, we are telling the Israelis: Forget about the refugees, forget about their plight, no right of return, no U.N. General Assembly resolution 194; we are giving up the refugee issue, we are taking it off the table before we even started negotiating.

Yet what is most remarkable about the interview is its time-capsule nature. One year ago—the interview was published last October—Fatah, the moderate Palestinian faction that controls the PLO and the Palestinian Authority and of which Areikat is a loyal member, consciously cast itself as the weaker party, at Israel’s whim, quietly building the trappings of statehood under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. “Israel is the stronger party in the equation,” Areikat said then. “Palestinians have no way of forcing Israel to accept anything.” One year later, the U.N. move has been transformed from a practical next step in the peace process into a symbolic end-run around it. This bait-and-switch, and how little notice it’s received, is striking.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.