On Israel’s "Right to Exist"

Now that the Palestinian civil war long sought by Israel, the U.S. and the EU appears on the verge of breaking out, it may be timely to examine the justification put forward by Israel, the U.S. and the EU for their collective punishment of the Palestinian people in retaliation for their having made the “wrong” choice in last January’s democratic election — the refusal of Hamas to “recognize Israel” or to “recognize Israel’s existence” or to “recognize Israel’s right to exist”.

These three verbal formulations have been used by media, politicians and even diplomats interchangeably, as though they mean the same thing. They do not.

“Recognizing Israel” or any other state is a formal legal/diplomatic act by a state with respect to another state. It is inappropriate — indeed, nonsensical — to talk about a political party or movement, even one in a sovereign state, extending diplomatic recognition to a state. To talk of Hamas “recognizing Israel” is simply sloppy, confusing and deceptive shorthand for the real demand being made.

“Recognizing Israel’s existence” is not a logical nonsense and appears on first impression to involve a relatively straightforward acknowledgement of a fact of life — like death and taxes. Yet there are serious practical problems with this formulation. What Israel, within what borders, is involved? The 55% of historical Palestine recommended for a Jewish state by the UN General Assembly in 1947? The 78% of historical Palestine occupied by Israel in 1948 and now viewed by most of the world as “Israel” or “Israel proper”?

The 100% of historical Palestine occupied by Israel since June 1967 and shown as “Israel” on maps in Israeli schoolbooks? Israel has never defined its own borders, since doing so would, necessarily, place limits on them. Still, if this were all that were being demanded of Hamas, it might be possible for it to acknowledge, as a fact of life, that a State of Israel exists today within some specified borders.

“Recognizing Israel’s right to exist”, the actual demand, is in an entirely different league. This formulation does not address diplomatic formalities or simple acceptance of present realities. It calls for a moral judgment.

There is an enormous difference between “recognizing Israel’s existence” and “recognizing Israel’s right to exist”. From a Palestinian perspective, the difference is in the same league as the difference between asking a Jew to acknowledge that the Holocaust happened and asking him to acknowledge that it was “right” that the Holocaust happened — that the Holocaust (or, in the Palestinian case, the Nakba) was morally justified.

To demand that Palestinians recognize “Israel’s right to exist” is to demand that a people who have for almost 60 years been treated, and continue to be treated, as sub-humans publicly proclaim that they ARE sub-humans — and, at least implicitly, that they deserve what has been done, and continues to be done, to them. Even 19th century U.S. governments did not require the surviving Native Americans to publicly proclaim the “rightness” of their ethnic cleansing by the Pale Faces as a condition precedent to even discussing what reservation might be set aside for them — under economic blockade and threat of starvation until they shed whatever pride they had left and conceded the point.

Some believe that Yasser Arafat did concede the point in order to buy his ticket out of the wilderness of demonization and earn the right to be lectured directly by the Americans. In fact, in his famous statement in Stockholm in late 1988, he accepted “Israel’s right to exist in peace and security”. This formulation, significantly, addresses the /conditions/ of existence of a state which, as a matter of fact, exists. It does not address the existential question of the “rightness” of the dispossession and dispersal of the Palestinian people from their homeland to make way for another people coming from abroad.

The original conception of the formulation “Israel’s right to exist” and of its utility as an excuse for not talking to any Palestinian leadership which still stood up for the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people are attributed to Henry Kissinger, the grand master of diplomatic cynicism. There can be little doubt that those states which still employ this formulation do so in full consciousness of what it entails, morally and psychologically, for the Palestinian people and for the same cynical purpose — as a roadblock against any progress toward peace and justice in Israel/Palestine and as a way of helping to buy more time for Israel to create more “facts on the ground” while blaming the Palestinians for their own suffering.

However, many private citizens of good will and decent values may well be taken in by the surface simplicity of the words “Israel’s right to exist” (and even more easily by the other two shorthand formulations) into believing that they constitute a self-evidently reasonable demand and that refusing such a reasonable demand must represent perversity (or a “terrorist ideology”) rather than a need to cling to their self-respect and dignity as full-fledged human beings which is deeply felt and thoroughly understandable in the hearts and minds of a long-abused people who have been stripped of almost everything else that makes life worth living. That this is so is evidenced by polls showing that the percentage of the Palestinian population which approves of Hamas’ steadfastness in refusing to bow to this humiliating demand by their enemies, notwithstanding the intensity of the economic pain and suffering inflicted on them by the Israeli and Western siege, substantially exceeds the percentage of the population which voted for Hamas in January.

It may not be too late to focus decent minds around the world on the unreasonableness — indeed, the immorality — of this demand and of the verbal formulation on which it is based, whose use and abuse have already caused so much misery and threaten to cause more.

JOHN V. WHITBECK, an international lawyer, is author of “The World According to Whitbeck“. He can be reached at: jvwhitbeck@awalnet.net.sa



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John V. Whitbeck is an international lawyer who as advised the Palestinian negotiating team in negotiations with Israel.

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