Did Spain recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland?

This is what an Israeli newspaper claimed. The truth is more nuanced, and sheds light on how difficult it is for international actors to accept Israel’s demands

According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, the Spanish foreign minister outlined a new policy in her speech to the UN General Assembly last week. The headline chosen by the newspaper was “Spain recognizes Israel as Jewish homeland”. According to the article’s text, the Spanish minister also argued that “the issue of Palestinian refugees should be solved in such a way that it does not compromise Israel’s current demographic makeup of a Jewish majority.”

If that was an accurate depiction of Spain’s position, it could be an important (and, in my opinion, worrying) harbinger of an international inclination to accept Israeli demands on these topics. However, the truth is more nuanced and fuzzy than that.

The Spanish foreign minister’s full remarks (PDF) were indeed interesting. On the issue of a “Jewish state”, she says (as Ha’aretz almost fully quotes in the main body of the text):

I wish to underline Spain’s commitment to the State of Israel as the embodiment of the project to create a homeland for the Jewish people.

Diplomatic speech tends to be intentionally hedged, and this statement is no exception. It establishes several degrees of separation between the State of Israel and its Jewish character. Firstly, by referring to “the project to create” a Jewish homeland, rather than the homeland itself, it places the Jewishness of the state in a historical context, as a project that can presumably be completed or at least wound down. Secondly, it refers to a “Jewish homeland” rather than a “Jewish state”, indicating that Israel should be a home for the Jews, rather than embrace a character that is internally biased in their favor. Thirdly, it does not say that Israel “is” the Jewish homeland, but that it embodies the project to create one. In other words, it implies that this is one of the elements that define Israel, rather than the exclusive core of its identity.

Admittedly, this formulation is unlikely to satisfy the Palestinians, or anyone who does not have the time or patience for such semantic gymnastics. However, it does point to the elephant in the room: Palestinian citizens in Israel. The Spanish squirming is meant to answer Israel’s demands, without in any way legitimizing the massive discrimination and exclusion of these citizens. This is a trick that many other international players would like to replicate. But it is unlikely to be successful. After all, one of the main thrusts behind the Israeli push on this issue is precisely the drive to enshrine Jews as first class citizens, and validate their ownership of the state.

The Israeli government’s other major motive in demanding Palestinian recognition of the Jewishness of the state relates to the other point stressed by Ha’aretz: the Palestinian refugee issue. Here, the newspaper clearly misrepresents the Spanish position, by avoiding the direct quote, which is as follows:

Also, the solution to be given to the painful drama of the Palestinian refugees shall be just and agreed upon by all parties concerned, allowing the preservation of Israel’s current character.

This position represents yet another diplomatic maneuver around a seemingly unresolvable impasse. Israel refuses to accept the return of Palestinian refugees to its territory (although some leaders have been willing to consider symbolic gestures on “family re-unification”). Ha’aretz is right to interpret the Spanish position as accepting this Israeli refusal. Indeed, it is likely that no serious international actor believes a resolution of the conflict will involve the return of refugees into Israel.

Yet, they still find it very difficult to come out and say it. Why? Because it is very hard to deny the legitimacy of the Palestinian claim. The right of people who were forced to flee from their country to return to it, after the conflict ends, is a widely accepted principle, and a strongly intuitive one at that. It was of the cornerstones of the agreement on Bosnia, 16 years ago.

The practicality of this principle in the context of Israel/Palestine is another matter. But outright endorsement of the Israeli position is so difficult, that even a clearly sympathetic Spanish foreign minister has to vaguely talk about “allowing the preservation of Israel’s current character”, a formula that could easily enable to return of many more refugees than Israel would ever accept, although certainly not all of them.