February 20, 2014 at 1:00 am

'Jewish state' debate sparked

It may complicate peace deal between Israel, Palestinians

An Israeli man prays at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray. Embrace of Israel as a Jewish state would amount to giving up Palestinian refugees' dreams to return to lost properties. (Sebastian Scheiner / AP)

Jerusalem— Is Israel “the Jewish state”?

The answer may seem as obvious as the Star of David on the Israeli flag. Yet the question is starting to complicate the ambitious U.S. effort to ram through a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel.

A broad-based group of Israelis plans to lobby the Knesset to declare the country, for the first time, a Jewish state by law. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel’s Jewish status as part of any pact.

“This is the Jewish land. This is the Jewish state,” he said in a speech this week to assembled U.S. Jewish leaders. “When we make an agreement it is an agreement between the nation state of the Jewish people and a nation state of the Palestinian people.”

Leading Palestinians made their opposition clear this week, insisting that by introducing the Jewish factor, Israel is drawing a red line that could doom talks.

The Palestinians reject Israel’s demand for pragmatic reasons as well: Embrace of Israel as a Jewish state would amount to giving up the dreams of Palestinian refugees to return to lost properties — the so-called “right of return” which is a central sticking point.