Hamas and Israel’s "Right to Exist"

To the great consternation of most of the world, the European Union, followed now by Norway and Canada, has halted payments to the Hamas-led government of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The stated reason is that Hamas has not recognized Israel’s “right to exist” or “renounced violence,” but the action so violates all common sense that its logic requires our closer scrutiny.

Let us first be clear: no conceivable good can come from this policy. It will slash the PA’s capacity to govern a shattered and desperate population. It will wreck the capacity of Hamas to mediate and contain tense factional divides. It could even demoralize and destroy the Palestinians’ long-standing commitment to democracy, ruining Palestinian political stability and therefore any possibility of peace negotiations. So why impose sanctions that can only result in dangerous disintegration of the political situation?

A certain withered diplomatic logic does underlie this measure. The PA itself was invented in 1995 to administer Oslo’s implicit two-state solution. Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel’s “right to exist” would seem to negate the diplomatic agreement that established the terms of its own authority. Until it agrees to those terms, the international community might deem that Hamas has rendered the PA’s legitimacy uncertain.

Unfortunately for its proponents, this rationale has crashed on one glaring pitfall: the premise that Israel itself supports the terms of Oslo or the Road Map. Prime Minister Olmert has openly declared the “Road Map” a dead letter. His stated policy of “ingathering” settlers into the major West Bank settlement blocs is accepted by everyone as signaling Israel’s intent permanently to annex major portions of the West Bank. The advancing Wall and settlement construction are ample material evidence that this plan is Israel’s real program and is already half-achieved. No one disagrees that these developments signify permanent territorial dismemberment of any Palestinian “state.” No one disagrees that the terms of Oslo have vanished like the morning mist.

It must therefore be evident even to the EU, Norway, and Canada that Israel has negated the diplomatic agreement that established the terms of its recognition by the Palestinians. So why pretend that Israel has not openly cast onto the trash heap of history the very peace deal that these countries now insist Hamas endorse?

The first answer is too obvious to belabor: craven capitulation to US pressure. The entire international community has been cajoled or threatened into continuing lip service to the Road Map while standing by passively as the US and Israel render the Road Map obsolete. Diplomatic nonsense always requires some political or moralistic palliative, however. The cover story is that Hamas’s recognizing Israel’s “right to exist” and abandoning armed struggle will somehow restore the diplomatic conditions of the Road Map, trigger comprehensive Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank, and allow peace finally to break out. Let us take this argument step by step.

First, it is simply unbelievable. All agree that Israel’s withdrawal of major settlement blocs in the West Bank (especially, the major cities of Ma’ale Adumim, Ariel, and Gush Etzion) is not foreseeable. The Israeli government itself has declared them permanent. No international actor or combination of actors has the political will and/or clout to change Israeli policy. Israel will not withdraw the major settlement blocs under any circumstances short of a national emergency. Hamas’s suddenly waxing nice will not constitute that emergency.

Second, the argument adopts specious Israeli claims about Arab logics that only dwindling ranks of Israel’s die-hard supporters still believe. Israeli propaganda holds that Arab “hatred” for Israel is irrational, born solely of Judeophobia, religious zealotry, and cultural backwardness, and that tough measures can therefore leverage Arab capitulation to reality even while the occupation continues. In this view, Israel’s hold on the West Bank is not really an “occupation,” serving a program of land annexation, but only a benign “administration,” forced on Israel by collective Arab and Palestinian unwillingness to recognize Israel’s “right to exist.”

The funding cut-off endorses this fantasy in holding that Hamas has rejected Israel’s authentic “promise of peace” due to its rejectionist Islamic dogma and not because Hamas has graphic evidence that Israel has no intention of permitting Palestinians a viable state. In this twisted view, cutting vital funds should make Hamas rethink this “irrationality,” abandon its “extremism,” recognize Israel’s “right to exist,” and end all hostile actions toward it. Hamas and the PA will then be rewarded (it is hinted vacantly) with a return to the Road Map.

Aside from its transparent tomfoolery (full awareness the US and Israel are eliminating the conditions for the Road Map as quickly as possible), deeper problems plague this papery notion. For if we look more closely at what Hamas is being asked to do, none of it makes sense either.

What does a “right to exist” mean exactly? There is no “right to exist” for states under international law. The formula has arisen in international diplomacy uniquely regarding Israel. It does not mean simply diplomatic recognition, which is the “fact” of existence. It does not mean recognizing Israel’s “right to self-determination,” either, or we would be using that famous term.

Let us pretend for a moment that Hamas is being asked to recognize Israel in the normal diplomatic sense. In this case, however, the EU position is unsupportable, because diplomatic recognition of a state routinely requires one bit of vital information: “right to exist” where? Israel’s borders are not set. Even its plans for those borders are not known; with impressive brashness, Mr. Olmert has announced that we will not know until 2010.

It is entirely legitimate for Hamas to require firm confirmation of Israel’s borders before recognizing it. It should also be incumbent on the international community to confirm where those borders will be before insisting that Hamas recognize Israel’s “right” to them. Otherwise, recognizing Israel’s “right to exist” could be construed to mean that Israel has a “right to exist” within whatever borders it chooses in coming years.

As the Palestinians stand to lose most of what is left of their homeland to this fuzziness, Hamas is refusing to endorse it. Is this extremist Islamic intransigence, warranting a funding freeze? Let us run a little thought experiment: Would Canadian, or Norwegian, or English, or French governments be called on the international carpet for not recognizing the “right to exist” of a neighboring state that is, with military force, settling its own ethnically defined population within contiguous walled cities and enclaves in Canadian, Norwegian, English or French national territories, while promising to carve those nations into “cantons?”

Absent clear borders, recognizing Israel’s “right to exist” must mean something else. And of course it does. Clearly implicit in the term is Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. In other words, the “right” Hamas is being required to endorse is that Israel can legitimately compose itself as a state in Palestine that is populated and run primarily by Jews, primarily for Jews. Such a state would thus be authorized by Hamas to sustain whatever laws and policies necessary to preserving its Jewish majority, even rejecting the return of Palestinian refugees mandated by international law. Or building a massive Wall on Palestinian land designed to protect the Jewish state from the “demographic threat” of mass non-Jewish citizenship-i.e., the Palestinians. Israel’s would also be legitimized for past actions on the same agenda, such as expelling the Palestinians from their homes in 1948, and for its future plans, such as confining Palestine’s indigenous people to cantons.

Israel’s leadership has declared all these measures necessary to preserve Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state,” as phrased in Israel’s Basic Law (and reiterated by Mr. Sharon, Mr. Olmert, and almost every Israeli party across the political spectrum). Yet it is not the fact of this open policy of ethnic cleansing, but Israel’s right to pursue it, that is expressed in the phrase, “right to exist.”

Hence bitter reluctance by the PLO, the Arab states, and much of the Muslim world to do so for many decades. They abandoned that position in 1989-90, as a pragmatic gesture toward a two-state solution. Cannot the EU then insist that Hamas recognize Israel’s “right to exist” if the PLO, the PA, and all other governments in the world have recognized it?

The problem is that the quid pro quo that supported this recognition, formalized in the Oslo process, is now clearly wrecked by Israel’s unilateral annexations of land. Carving the West Bank into cantons has eliminated any hope of a viable Palestinian state. The two-state solution is not working. In these conditions, should Hamas recognize Israel’s “right to exist” if it is recognized to be eliminating Palestinian sovereignty altogether?

The more embarrassing problem, however, is that the EU itself has not explicitly recognized Israel’s “right to exist” in this sense. Nor has Canada, or Norway. The United Nations has not done so, either. They haven’t, because they can’t.

This may take some people by surprise, but the UN has not used the term “Jewish state” since 1947. Resolution 181 then called for a “Jewish state” and an “Arab state,” with gerrymandered borders designed to craft Jewish and Arab majorities in each state. But the attempt was rendered obsolete when Zionist forces established “Israel” on a much greater swath of territory that had, in total, held a substantial Arab majority, and expelled most of the Arab residents. As refugees, according to the Geneva Conventions, those Arab residents have the right to return to their homes, villages, towns and cities. But their return would eliminate the Jewish majority in what became “Israel,” so Israel hasn’t allowed this.

Hence the UN cannot confirm Israel as a Jewish state (i.e., a state that can legitimately sustain a Jewish majority) without contradicting international law regarding the right of refugees. When the UN refers to “Israel” today, it does not understand Israel as the “Jewish state” in the old ethnic-majority terms of 1947, because Israel can be granted no “right” to an ethnic demography that would prevent the return of refugees.

Also, times have simply changed. In 1947, ethnic nationalism still made some belated sense, although it was already discredited by the dreadful abuses wreaked by Germany and Japan. Today, recognizing the “right” of any state to compose itself legally as an ethnic-majority state would clearly flout UN conventions on human rights and non-discrimination. The UN and EU therefore cannot openly endorse Israel’s right to compose itself as one. It would make hash of international efforts in Rwanda, the Sudan, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and many other crisis spots.

So the US has lured the EU, Canada, and Norway into a trap. If they hold that Hamas must recognize Israel as a Jewish state (with a right to preserve an ethnic-Jewish majority), then they must state clearly that it endorses ethnic-majority governance. But them themselves cannot explicitly endorse Israel’s right to ethnocracy, because it would contradict international law as well as its own diplomacy in a host of other conflict zones, so on what grounds does they require Hamas to do so?

Worse for them, they are adhering to international norms in insisting that the State of Palestine must comprise a stable democracy that secures equal rights for all its citizens irrespective of religion or race. But if they hold Palestine to this standard, then why are they not holding Israel to the same standard?

But if they did hold Israel to that standard, then the entire rationale for a two-state solution would evaporate. The Road Map is based on the supposition that the only peaceful solution in Palestine is to establish one state for Jews and another for everyone else. If Israel’s “right to exist” does not entail sustaining a Jewish majority (which necessitates discriminatory legislation, ethnic cleansing, land grabs, and social engineering), then the ethnic logic supporting two states disappears. Why agree to compose two secular-democratic states sitting next to each other in this small land? No one can articulate an answer, because ethnic demography is their only rationale.

So what are the EU, Norway and Canada requiring Hamas to do? Recognize Israel as an ethnic state with a “right to exist” wherever it decides to set its borders-even though doing so would not only mean Palestinian national suicide but would violate principles that govern their own diplomacy as well as their own internal laws and values about nondiscrimination? Or is Hamas supposed to evade the issue by recognizing Israel’s “right to exist” simply as a normal state, even though “normal” (non-ethnic) status would then obligate Israel to permit Palestinian refugees to return-thus implying that the EU, Norway and Canada do not support Israel in sustaining a Jewish majority?

This conundrum should have diplomats, parliamentarians, and foreign ministries huddled in their back rooms trying to sort out their own positions, rather than attempting to starve the Palestinians into Hamas’s capitulation. For it is not only the funding freeze that has become rampant nonsense. The entire Road Map logic has become nonsense, too.

May its dutiful proponents in foreign capitals lie sleepless in their beds contemplating their own confusion and the terrible bloody consequences it is likely to wreak.

VIRGINIA TILLEY is associate professor of Political Science and International Relations, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and author of The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock. She is currently at the Centre for Policy Studies, Johannesburg, South Africa and available at tilley@hws.edu.



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VIRGINIA TILLEY is associate professor of Political Science and International Relations, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and author of The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock. She can be reached at: virginia.tilley@gmail.com.


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