The “Right to Exist”: A Double-Edged Red Herring

When negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians begin to gather steam or, as is the case now, seem to be re-starting, emotions on both sides are stirred by the question of Israel’s “right to exist,” particularly its right, or lack of same, to exist as a Jewish state.

That such a debate would raise passions to a boiling point on both sides is self-evident. For Israelis, the question goes to the very legitimacy of their state and to the history of the Zionist movement. More, it implies a question of whether it is morally justifiable to seek to destroy Israel by any means necessary.

For Palestinians, the question has two layers: one, acknowledging and recognizing that Zionism succeeded in establishing the Jewish state. The second layer implies a demand that Palestinians acknowledge that their dispossession was justified and legitimate. Most, though far from all, Palestinians can accept the first layer. But search as hard as you might and it is unlikely you’ll find more Palestinians than you can count with your fingers that can accept the second.

Such a vexing question is not asked about other countries. The “right” of the United States to exist was not questioned before, during or after the Americans and their colonial predecessors nearly wiped out the native population. The right of Lebanon, a country sliced out of Greater Syria with an arbitrary pen stroke on a map, or of Jordan, a country split apart from the rest of the British Mandate over Palestine, to exist is not similarly questioned. But Israel’s is. By the same token, those countries do not ask for their “right to exist” to be acknowledged, merely that their sovereignty be recognized and respected. But Israel does ask this.

Countries do not exist by right. They exist by fiat, a recognition of sovereignty, defensive capabilities, and the power, derived either from the populace or the military, to maintain the structure and government of that country. But the debate over Israel’s right to exist persists for two reasons: Israel’s insistence that other countries, particularly the Arabs and especially the Palestinians, acknowledge this right and the constant rhetorical attempts by Israel’s opponents to de-legitimize the state’s existence. Both of these are pointless exercises that serve only to fuel the conflict and make rational discussion that much more difficult.

Israel’s “right to exist” and even to exist as a Jewish state was sanctioned by the United Nations in their partition plan of 1947 and expressed in UN General Assembly Resolution 181. While GA resolutions do not have the weight in international law that Security Council resolutions do, this is still much more international acknowledgment than most countries have. UNGA 181 speaks specifically of a “Jewish state” repeatedly.

More than that, though, Israeli diplomat Abba Eban put it best: “Nobody does Israel any service by proclaiming its ‘right to exist.’ Israel’s right to exist, like that of the United States, Saudi Arabia and 152 other states, is axiomatic and unreserved. Israel’s legitimacy is not suspended in midair awaiting acknowledgement….There is certainly no other state, big or small, young or old, that would consider mere recognition of its ‘right to exist’ a favor, or a negotiable concession.” (New York Times, November 18, 1981).

Eban was right. Israel’s insistence that its right to exist be recognized in fact undermines the very goal that insistence seeks to achieve. This is a different matter from recognizing Israel’s sovereignty, a diplomatic formality that is very important for international relations. That is what Israel needs, not recognition of its “right” to exist. And Israel can best achieve that end by ending its dispute with the Palestinians and finally demarcating clear borders so that Israel is a clearly defined entity in the international arena. Put simply, Israel needs its sovereignty recognized in the same manner as sovereignty is recognized for most of the rest of the world’s states.

The PLO recognized that sovereignty in 1988. Jordan and Egypt recognized that sovereignty with their respective peace treaties with Israel, and other countries in the Arab and larger Muslim world have also recognized it. The Arab League peace proposal offers that recognition from the rest of the Arab states. But by adding in the need for Palestinians in particular to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, Israel goes well beyond a request for recognition and asks Palestinians to agree that their dispossession was justified.

The father of Revisionist Zionism, which spawned the Herut party, the key party of the Likud coalition, Ze’ev Jabotinsky was a man of racist views, yet he saw better than his contemporaries the realities of the Palestinians Arabs’ position. In his signature essay, “The Iron Wall”, he wrote: “…consider all the precedents with which they are acquainted, and see whether there is one solitary instance of any colonisation being carried on with the consent of the native population. There is no such precedent…As long as the Arabs feel that there is the least hope of getting rid of us, they will refuse to give up this hope in return for either kind words or for bread and butter, because they are not a rabble, but a living people. And when a living people yields in matters of such a vital character it is only when there is no longer any hope of getting rid of us, because they can make no breach in the iron wall.”

The situation today is no different than when Jabotinsky wrote those words in 1923, at least not in this regard. Most Palestinians realize that Zionism has succeeded and a Jewish state established. Most Palestinians realize this is an established and irreversible fact of history. They can accept these facts. But to ask Palestinians to accept that the Zionists and later the Israeli state had the right to take the land they once lived on is an unrealistic demand and one that no people could possibly accept.

By the same token, rhetoric aimed at making the case that Israel has no right to exist must also be eliminated. It is not necessary to engage in “chicken or the egg” debating as to whether that rhetoric spawns Israel’s demand or the Israeli’s repeatedly stated need for this acknowledgment inspires such rhetoric. Both need to stop if sufficiently cool heads are ever to prevail in this conflict. In this, it is not only Israel and the Palestinians, but Israel and the rest of Middle East, including Iran in particular, that is at issue. Israel must accommodate itself to the reality that, while its existence may be accepted at some point, the manner of its birth will always be disapproved of. The Arab states, as well as Iran, must recognize that Israel is a fact and that it has the same entitlement to sovereignty and security as any other country.

In my experience of dealing with peoples of all these groups, the overwhelming majority are willing to accept these conditions. It is only the constant rekindling of the pointless debate over legitimacy and the “right to exist” that radicalizes the discussion. This happens because of the deep-seated insecurities of both Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli political scientist Professor Menachem Klein puts it quite elegantly: “…admitting that Israeli forces committed war crimes in 1948, or that central organs of the government played a role in turning many Palestinians into refugees, meant admitting that Israel had been founded on an injustice. Such an admission, many Israelis feared, would void their country’s moral foundation and legitimacy…When Israel is reassured that its darkest nightmares will not come to pass, the hour will come for Israel to apologize for its role in the refugee problem….

“The PLO had a similar difficulty. Palestinian society as a whole was reluctant to admit to war crimes that its forces committed during its national liberation struggle, and to apologize for the terror that its organizations used and still use against Israelis and foreigners….They also fear that admitting to war crimes and terror will invalidate recognition of their right to self-determination. When the Palestinians are ensured of sovereignty over the territories Israel conquered in 1967, and when they are certain that their confession will not be exploited by Israel to undermine their country, the Palestinians will be able to apologize.” (Klein, A Possible Peace Between Israel And Palestine: An Insider’s Account of the Geneva Initiative, 2007, pp. 59-60)

Klein describes here how both sides need to establish a certain moral purity or, in their respective views, risk undermining the legitimacy of their national claims. But the very attempt is absurd. Notwithstanding the fact that most Israelis and most Palestinians are good and ethical people, people do terrible things in war. Israelis and Palestinians, Israel and Arab countries, and Zionists and Arab nationalists have been at each other’s throats for over a century. It is not humanly possible to fight for any length of time, much less a century, and not commit terrible crimes. No army, guerrilla group, militia or police force can make such a claim anywhere in history. The fact that terrible crimes were committed does not de-legitimize either Israeli sovereignty nor Palestinians’ right to self-determination.

It’s high time the discussion moved past pointless debates such as Israel’s “right to exist.” It’s time to deal with realities, and they are simply these: Israel exists and will continue to exist as a Jewish state for the foreseeable future and Palestinians have a right to self-determination in a viable state of their own, their experience of the past 60 years having entitles them to a good deal of aid and support from not only Israel, but also the Arab world and the larger international community in establishing that state in a sustainable manner. Should Israelis and Palestinians mutually decide (inconceivable as this is) on some other structure, such as one state or a federated system, that is their right and no one else’s to determine. From there, people of good will and conscience, in and out of government, can work within Israel and Palestine to address other needs within each society, such as healing the sectarian rifts among the Palestinians or working to ensure equality for Israel’s non-Jewish citizens.

If those basic facts of life cannot be accepted as axiomatic, then there really is no point in discussing anything else.