The Strategic Significance of the “Jewish state” in the Struggle for Palestinian Rights

Armed settlers training at an early age in Hebron, West Bank. 18 November 2008. (photo: Armed settlers training at an early age in Hebron, West Bank. 18 November 2008. (photo:

An important historical and strategic shift has taken place in regards to United States foreign relations with Israel that has yet to be given its proper due notice by political actors and commentators alike.

Public statements of the Obama administration have increasingly begun to adopt the terminology of the Israeli government with regards to defining Israel as a specifically "Jewish state" and as the "homeland of the Jewish people."

Indication of this approach can be seen in the remarks of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her discussion with Israeli President Shimon Peres in September 2010, after which she noted, "The status quo is unsustainable" even if it can last for another 30 years. "The only path to ensure Israel’s future as a secure democratic and Jewish state" is an Arab state, headed by the Palestinian Authority, "alongside" Israel.1

President Obama has been more explicit, as documented in his 2011 speech to the powerful Israel lobby group AIPAC:

"Here are the facts we all must confront.  First, the number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River is growing rapidly and fundamentally reshaping the demographic realities of both Israel and the Palestinian Territories.  This will make it harder and harder -- without a peace deal -- to maintain Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state.[…] The ultimate goal is two states for two people:  Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people -- (applause) -- and the State of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people."2

To some observers, this terminology may not appear to significantly diverge from the previous arrangement, whereby the U.S. government already supported Israel to the tune of $US3 to 5 billion a year, while backing up this key Middle East ally diplomatically, financially and militarily. But this shift is extremely significant with regard to U.S. and Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, and just as important in relation to how Palestinians formulate a strategic counter-approach in pursuit of their historical struggle for self-determination, return, and national liberation.

It is significant to note that the stipulation that Israel be recognized as a "Jewish state" and as the "homeland of the Jewish people" has been absent from previous U.S. foreign policy formulations. Even George W. Bush, often noted for being amongst the most ‘pro-Israeli’ of U.S. presidents, refrained from adopting such terminology as part of his administration’s official policy. For instance, Bush’s famous Rose Garden speech, in which he called for the creation of two states, makes no mention of the word "Jewish state" throughout the entire speech. However, it is true that the secret 2004 letter Bush passed on to then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon contained the assurance that "[t]he United States is strongly committed to Israel's security and well-being as a Jewish state."3 Nevertheless, the letter did not have the stature of binding U.S. policy, legislated through the U.S. Congress and Senate.4

Irrespective of the precise dating and authorship of the "Jewish state" characterization of Israel, as adopted by the U.S. government, what is apparent is that the Obama administration has embraced this terminology uncritically and explicitly. In doing so, it echoes the ascendant Israeli demand of recent years that the Palestinian leadership and people (including those in 1948 Palestine who hold Israeli citizenship) recognize precisely this condition.

Thankfully, the Palestinian leadership has been wise enough to reject this demand, understanding its serious political implications upon Palestinian rights, not to mention the exceptional nature of such a demand to begin with. The PLO leadership already accepted the existence of the state of Israel, both symbolically in the 1988 statehood declaration, as well as explicitly in the 1993 Declaration of Principles. Moreover, recognition of the specific religious and ideological characterization of a state is not something for external states or entities to recognize, but rather remains something for the citizens of that state to determine themselves. States and international bodies recognize the sovereignty of state entities and not their particular ascriptive orientations.

For Palestinians to recognize such an ideological self-definition would essentially allow Israel to use this recognition as justification for rejecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes (as demanded by international law). It furthermore raises the specter of ethnic cleansing against the 1.5 million-strong Palestinian community who live within 1948 Palestine, based on the fact that Israel would now have a "right" (in this case granted and recognized by the Palestinians themselves), to demographically determine the constituent population of the Jewish state, as meaning a "Jewish majority".

In essence, the "Jewish state" qualification is at the root of the Palestinian Zionist conflict. It encapsulates the discriminatory racial/ethnic/ religious categorization that leads to the settler colonial project of Zionism, embodied in the state of Israel, historically and into the present, on the one hand, and the concomitant dispossession and fragmentation of the Palestinian people on the other. In brief, the "Jewish state" is why there is settler colonialism, occupation and apartheid in Palestine today.

Why is this significant? And why is it significant that the United States has embraced this formulation more explicitly now? Israel, after all, has always been unapologetic about this self-description and considers it the modus vivendi and esprit de corp of its state mission.

The significance lies in understanding the nature of Palestinian oppression and the essential contradictions it embodies in the current world.

The main political enemy of the Palestinian people lies in the policies of Western governments, particularly the U.S., whose support of Israel historically and into the present, facilitates this project on the ground. Israel would not have been able to come into existence were it not for this crucial political, diplomatic, moral, financial and military help, and its continued existence in its current form is equally dependent on the maintenance of this support. Western support for Israel forms the lynchpin of Israel’s ‘successful’ settler colonialism, and if it is removed - mainly from Western popular consciousness, as its primary bastion - the entire project will begin to crumble: morally and legally first, financially, politically and militarily later. Certainly, Israel has developed its own strengths over six decades of its existence. However, these cannot be sustained without the imperial mother countries which gave birth to this project to begin with. This makes Israel uniquely dependent upon its imperial backers as a colonial enterprise today.

Additionally, it is essential to point out that the crucial feature that facilitates the guise of this partnership is the “democratic” character of Israel. Without the democratic façade, Israel would correctly be exposed as an ethno-religious, outdated state model that dispossesses and discriminates against Palestinians on racial/ethnic/religious grounds. Its ersatz democratic quality situates Israel within a Western European, liberal, humanist historical and political context (which forms the basis of justification for Western states as well) and further facilitates Israel’s claim to be a project of national self-determination of the "Jewish nation" throughout the world, and a justifiable and necessary geographic refuge for world Jewry escaping discrimination.

There has always been, and always will be, a fundamental contradiction between Israel’s "Jewish" and "democratic" characters. Israeli intellectuals, the Israeli Supreme Court and an army of Israeli and Zionist commentators, have engaged in monumental amounts of intellectual gymnastics to "square the circle" but to no avail. There is no solution to the Jewish-democratic paradox, because one of these traits must be dominant: democratic norms do not tolerate ethnic ascription, but rather equality between all citizens. In order for Israel to be "Jewish" it must assume illiberal, undemocratic policies. This has been just as true for Israel’s historical creation (which meant ethnic cleansing for Palestinians) as it has been for the maintenance of this character, resulting in continuing forms of ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and dispossession of Palestinians. These practices serve as a means to offset the continued presence of Palestinians on their land, who are endowed with higher birth rates than Israeli Jews, and their continued self-organization as a national grouping (Palestinian).

What does this mean for Palestinians and their allies today?

The renowned ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu writes in his masterpiece The Art of War "what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy." Western strategy vis-à-vis Palestinians has been to support Israel’s repression of Palestinians and Arabs as a means to keep the region divided, weak and exploitable, for the profit of U.S. corporations and geostrategic interests. The ascendant demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state, however, opens up a strategic niche of entrance for a potential Palestinian counter-strategy. This is because the indefensibility of a Jewish state within liberal values exposes lines of attack which can be widened and exploited to undermine the legitimacy of the Zionist project overall, and Western support for this project. In the context of the first African-American President, brought to power upon the desire of the U.S. electorate for a non-racial, more equitable social, political and financial order, such contradictions would appear to be more stark.

Palestinian activists need to be equipped, trained and engaged in a plan for the purpose of exploiting this strategic weakness. Unfortunately, the current PLO leadership has failed to recognize this opening despite recognizing many of its important features. In his September 2011 speech to the UN General Assembly, PA president Mahmoud Abbas remarked "[o]ur efforts are not aimed at isolating Israel or de-legitimizing it; rather we want to gain legitimacy for the cause of the people of Palestine. We only aim to de-legitimize the settlement activities and the occupation and apartheid and the logic of ruthless force, and we believe that all the countries of the world stand with us in this regard."5

However, delegitimizing Israel as the manifestation of the "Jewish State" – the heart of political Zionism - is exactly what is needed today. All other strategies address the conflict’s manifestations, but not its roots.

The primary Palestinian asset and form of strength is its moral legitimacy as an indigenous oppressed, colonized people, fighting for its rights against a discriminatory, colonialist, apartheid-practicing project. Without the fundamental moral basis of our cause, and the concomitant illegitimacy of the Zionist project exposed, our struggle will remain the pawn of important - but secondary – realms of power asymmetry that are not to our advantage (military might, financial weight, diplomatic horse-trading etc.) That Abu Mazen can recognize the apartheid features of Israeli oppression, yet abstain from a strategic approach that would question the legitimacy of this project, is unconscionable, counter productive and speaks to a political obsolescence for the task at hand.

Irrespective of what the Palestinian leadership is engaged in, there is ample room for Palestinian activists, parties and those in solidarity with the Palestinian cause, to undertake a struggle that can give life to such a project. There are many forms this struggle can take, and it is the responsibility of national movement actors and allies to coordinate their efforts around this goal.

The 2005 call to boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel (BDS), is an important beginning for this endeavor. However, in order for it to have "teeth", it requires the equipping of an army of individuals and organizations steeped in the moral, educational and legal armor to challenge precisely the sites where the contradictions inherent in support of the “Jewish state” and liberal values meet. This requires patience, education, organization, and resources, but if there is a political will, it can be done.

The real question is what will happen if Palestinians refrain from engaging in such a strategy, projecting what the “Jewish state” actually means for Palestinians in the long term. Needless to say, Israel has not been building settlements throughout the West Bank as a passing interest. They are strategic investments supported by the West through a convenient blind eye, for the purpose of consolidating the “Jewish state”, and which one day may form the bases to eliminate its "indigenous problem." History teaches us that Israeli settlement in the pre-1948 era played a similar role in facilitating the Nakba, and there is no reason to think that the Zionist project has changed course or, for that matter, that the Arab or international arena is in a position to counter such dangerous potential maneuvers as the 'natural' end to the "Jewish state" logic.  Israel’s future ambitions of being an international supplier of natural gas to Europe hardens its uncompromising stance, while weakening Western government resolve for adhering to minimal Palestinian rights.

For this reason, the need to build a broad movement around principles that shame, isolate and defeat the notion of the "Jewish state" is imperative. At a time when capitalistic crises in the Western world bring forth an emergent underclass of youth and working poor, demanding a fairer dispersion of wealth and rights, this constituency is the natural affinity grouping for our cause, with whose struggle we must be concerned and engaged.  It is our responsibility to link Western support for the oppression of Palestinians, as part of the unfair logic of the contemporary capitalist order and its priorities, for the mutual benefit of Palestinians and those exploited by Western capitalism in their home countries – namely the Western working class. If the promise of the Arab revolutions can also be consolidated in the form of more democratic and equitable Arab regional order within the medium term, the basis for victory against Zionism can be found.


Toufic Haddad is the co-author and editor of Between the Lines: Readings in Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S ‘War on Terror’(Haymarket Books, 2007). He is a Phd candidate in Development Studies at the School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

1 ArutzSheva,"Clinton Lays Groundwork for PA as Necessary for 'Jewish State'"Tzi Ben Gedalyahu, 15th October 2010, available at

2 See full text of Obama’s speech at AIPAC conference 2011, found at:

3 See:

4 The Bush-Sharon letter contained other assurances, including the permission for Israel to annex settlement blocs, for instance, which likewise was not official U.S. policy. Moreover the letter was initially given in confidence to Sharon and was only leaked by the Israeli administration as a kind of ‘medal of honor’ boasting of Sharon’s accomplishments with the Bush administration, and for the purposes of silencing Sharon’s critics in the run up to the unilateral Israeli redeployment from the Gaza Strip in 2005

5 Mahmoud Abbas speech at the UN - The full official text WAFA, Friday 23 Sep 2011