Nine years ago, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell delivered a speech on the Middle East in which he briefly called on Palestinians to recognize Israel as a `Jewish state.` Powell doesn`t recall how the phrase ended up in his speech, but David Ivry, then the Israeli ambassador to the United States, says he persuaded an aide to Powell to slip it in.
From that small seed - the first time a U.S. official took sides on the issue - a significant and potentially insurmountable hurdle has emerged, one that could scuttle President Obama`s newly launched effort to promote a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
President George W. Bush picked up the `Jewish state` concept in his speeches and used it in a controversial exchange of letters with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004. Obama has also adopted the phrase, most recently in a speech last month before the U.N. General Assembly.
Describing Israel as a `Jewish state` may seem like standard boilerplate in the United States, often used in newspaper articles and television programs. But words can carry deep meanings - especially in Middle East diplomacy.
For the Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian recognition of Israel as a `Jewish state` would mean acceptance that the Jews have existed in the Middle East for thousands of years - and that Palestinian refugees have no claim to return to property they fled or were forced to flee when Israel was founded six decades ago.
Palestinians see their `right of return` as a sacred tenet. They regard a `Jewish state` as a trap, a new demand that did not come up during years of negotiations in the 1990s or in peace treaties reached with Egypt and Jordan. The Palestine Liberation Organization recognized the State of Israel as part of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
Diana Buttu, a former aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and now a fellow at Harvard University`s Kennedy School, participated in the 2001 talks at Taba, Egypt. `I was in the negotiations on refugees, and there was no mention of it,` she said. `It is entirely new.`
Maen Areikat, the PLO ambassador to the United States, said: `We view it as a political maneuver by the Israelis, an attempt to preempt and prejudge the outcome of final status issues.` Palestinian officials would never agree to the concept, he said, because it would mean giving up the right of return.
Moreover, Palestinian and Arab officials contend that labeling Israel a `Jewish state` calls into question the rights of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, who comprise 20 percent of Israel`s population.
In a 2009 speech, Abbas heaped scorn on the concept. `What is a `Jewish state`? We call it, the `State of Israel.` You can call yourselves whatever you want,` he said. `You can call yourselves whatever you want. But I will not accept it.... You can call yourselves the Zionist Republic, the Hebrew, the National, the Socialist [Republic], call it whatever you like. I don`t care.`
Michael B. Oren, the current Israeli ambassador to the United States, says that the question of a `Jewish state` is `not only important, it is paramount.` The Oslo accords were flawed, he said, because although the PLO recognized the state of Israel, the Israeli government at the same time recognized the PLO as `the representative of the Palestinian people.`
`When I read that, I thought, `Oh, oh, this is a mistake.` It is not reciprocal,` Oren recalled. `I thought it would be the undoing of Oslo.` He said the Netanyahu demand is not a new concept, noting that the U.N. partition of the British mandate in 1948 referred to a `Jewish state` and an `Arab state.` (Buttu dismisses the comparison, saying that `Jewish Palestinians would have been a minority in the enclave that would have been created.`)
In the coming peace talks, acceptance of a `Jewish state` is `as substantive as you can get,` Oren said. `It means the end of conflict.`
Though Netanyahu heads a right-leaning coalition, there is little debate within Israel about the importance of the phrase. Tzipi Livni, the current opposition leader, helped popularize the concept when she was an aide to Sharon. She personally convinced Bush of its importance, which is why he wrote `The United States is strongly committed to Israel`s security and well-being as a Jewish state` in his 2004 letter stating that Palestinians should expect to live in a future Palestine, not Israel.
Ivry, the former ambassador, said Israelis have long recognized the importance of securing American support for the notion of a `Jewish state.` He said that Israelis were surprised at how hard Palestinians had pushed the refugee issue at Camp David talks in 2000 and Taba in 2001, and there had been a lot of discussion within the Israeli government about how to counter it.
`We saw it as an issue that should not even be negotiated,` Ivry said. `The Palestinians should have no right of return; only Jewish refugees should ever come back.`
Ivry said he contacted Richard Armitage, then the deputy secretary of state, and persuaded him to insert the reference; Powell says that he checked with Armitage and Armitage has no memory of that. Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who wrote the first draft of Powell`s speech, said the sentence did not ring many alarm bells when it unexpectedly appeared in the speech.
`We might have included it to give the speech balance since we were including parts that might be seen as too forward-leaning towards the Palestinians,` Powell said, such as calling on Israel to stop killing and wounding innocent Palestinians and to halt settlment expansion.
Now, however, it has become settled American policy. Obama, when he was running for president in 2008, told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that `any agreement with the Palestinian people must preserve Israel`s identity as a Jewish state.` The administration`s national security strategy released earlier this year reaffirms that stance, though with a nod to Palestinian concerns about Israeli Arabs. The strategy cites the goal of `a Jewish state of Israel, with true security, acceptance and rights for all Israelis.`
In the eyes of Israelis, Obama stumbled when he delivered his 2009 speech to the Arab world in Cairo because he appeared to link the creation of Israel to the Holocaust, which goes against the Zionist narrative that Jews have always been a part of the Middle East.
In his U.N. General Assembly speech last month, Obama tried to address that concern. He referred to `the Jewish state` and added: `After thousands of years, Jews and Arabs are not strangers in a strange land.... Israel is a sovereign state and the historic homeland of the Jewish people.`