President Obama did a favor for pro-Israel lawmakers by declaring Israel a “Jewish state” at the State of the Union address Tuesday.
They might have Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to thank for that surprising inclusion, after the staunch Israel ally suggested the president include the remarks in the speech.
Whether Israel is designated as a Jewish state has emerged as a major stumbling block in peace negotiations with Palestine. Obama made clear he firmly sides with Israel on the controversial definition, which, if settled by a peace deal, would eliminate Palestinian right-of-return claims.
“It’s not something that the United States usually did in the past, and that’s partly because Israel never did in the past,” said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
“Accepting a Jewish state and the logic of a two-state solution would negate wholesale what Palestinians call the right of return,” said Sachs.
But a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) criticized Obama’s statement.
“I think it would set a very negative precedent, if we began assigning racial, religious or ethnic characteristics to any nation,” said Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s communications director. “The last nation that wanted that was apartheid South Africa. They wanted to be the white nation.
“Our principle of equality and justice should not be altered to fit the political considerations of any interest,” Hooper added.
Kristin Szremski, director of communications at American Muslims for Palestine, said Obama’s comments were “extremely disappointing because it shows the United States is not an honest broker in these negotiations.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state “the real key to peace” with Palestine, but Palestinian negotiators have vehemently rejected the demand.
In his speech Tuesday, though, Obama didn’t mince words in his support for Netanyahu.
“American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there; to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the State of Israel — a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side,” said the president.
Obama’s high-profile statement helps make up for past remarks and incidents that angered Israel and pro-Israel Democratic lawmakers and donors. One of Obama’s biggest stumbles, in their eyes, came in 2011, when the president declared the borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war should provide the starting point for peace talks.
The Obama administration alienated Jewish allies in 2010, when Vice President Biden strongly criticized the Israeli government’s decision to build new housing in East Jerusalem.
Ed Koch, the late former Democratic mayor of New York City, who is Jewish, vowed he would not campaign again for Obama after what he viewed as antagonistic action toward Israel. Koch, who died last year, campaigned for the president in Florida in 2008.
Israeli officials also groused in 2012 that Obama had snubbed Netanyahu by not meeting with him when he came to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.
A White House spokesman at the time disputed that assertion, noting Obama and Netanyahu attended the assembly on different days.
Administration officials note the president has repeatedly described Israel as a Jewish state in the past, such as in a speech before the U.N. General Assembly in September.
At a joint press availability with Netanyahu in 2009, Obama said, “It is in the U.S. national security interests to assure that Israel’s security as an independent Jewish state is maintained.”
Even so, it was important for lawmakers to hear Obama describe Israel as a Jewish state in his State of the Union address, usually the most formal remarks delivered by the president in a given year.
Josh Block, president and CEO of The Israel Project, said establishing Israel as fundamentally a Jewish state is essential for the success of ongoing peace talks.
“Palestinian denialism, denial of the Jewish people to have a Jewish state, has become increasingly entrenched,” he said.
Block said acknowledgement of Israel as a Jewish state is important because, otherwise Palestinians could use a peace deal as the first step to its elimination as a Jewish state.
Sachs, of the Brookings Institution, estimated that if Palestinians who left their homes in 1948 and their descendants were granted the right of return, Arabs would equal or outnumber Jews in Israel.
Obama’s support for Israel’s call for recognition as a Jewish state helped make up for his opposition to any legislation that would tighten sanctions on Iran and could derail multi-lateral nuclear talks.
Obama has sternly warned lawmakers he would veto a sanctions bill.