Recognition would imply acceptance that they deserve to be treated as
What 'Israel's right to exist' means to Palestinians
By John V. Whitbeck
February 02, 2007
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA
Since the Palestinian elections in 2006, Israel and much of the West
have asserted that the principal obstacle to any progress toward
Israeli-Palestinian peace is 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 Israel, the United
States, and the European Union as a rationale for collective
punishment of the Palestinian people. The phrases are also used by the
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 and
diplomatic act by one state with respect to another state. It is
inappropriate indeed, nonsensical to talk about a political party
or movement extending diplomatic recognition to a state. To talk of
Hamas "recognizing Israel" is simply to use sloppy, confusing, and
deceptive shorthand for the real demand being made of the Palestinians.
"Recognizing Israel's existence" appears on first impression to
involve a relatively straightforward acknowledgment of a fact of life.
Yet there are serious practical problems with this language. What
Israel, within what borders, is involved? Is it the 55 percent of
historical Palestine recommended for a Jewish state by the UN General
Assembly in 1947? The 78 percent of historical Palestine occupied by
the Zionist movement in 1948 and now viewed by most of the world as
"Israel" or "Israel proper"? The 100 percent of historical Palestine
occupied by Israel since June 1967 and shown as "Israel" (without any
"Green Line") 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 was
being demanded of Hamas, it might be possible for the ruling political
party to acknowledge, as a fact of life, that a state of Israel exists
today within some specified borders. Indeed, Hamas leadership has
effectively done so in recent weeks.
"Recognizing Israel's right to exist," the actual demand being made of
Hamas and Palestinians, is in an entirely different league. This
formulation does not address diplomatic formalities or a 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 concede that the Holocaust was morally
justified. For Palestinians to acknowledge the occurrence of the Nakba
the expulsion of the great majority of Palestinians from their
homeland between 1947 and 1949 is one thing. For them to publicly
concede that it was "right" for the Nakba to have happened would be
something else entirely. For the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, the
Holocaust and the Nakba, respectively, represent catastrophes and
injustices on an unimaginable scale that can neither be forgotten nor
To demand that Palestinians recognize "Israel's right to exist" is to
demand that a people who have been treated as subhumans unworthy of
basic human rights publicly proclaim that they are subhumans. It would
imply Palestinians' acceptance that they deserve what has been done
and continues to be done to them. Even 19th-century US governments did
not require the surviving native Americans to publicly proclaim the
"rightness" of their ethnic cleansing by European colonists as a
condition precedent to even discussing what sort of land reservation
they might receive. Nor did native Americans have to live 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. But in fact, in his famous 1988
statement in Stockholm, he accepted "Israel's right to exist in peace
and security." This language, 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 phrase "Israel's right to exist" and of
its use as an excuse for not talking with any Palestinian leaders who
still stood up for the rights of their people are attributed to former
US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. It is highly likely that those
countries that still employ this phrase do so in full awareness of
what it entails, morally and psychologically, for the Palestinian people.
However, many people of goodwill and decent values may well be taken
in by the surface simplicity of the words, "Israel's right to exist,"
and believe that they constitute a reasonable demand. And if the
"right to exist" is reasonable, then refusing to accept it must
represent perversity, rather than Palestinians' deeply felt need to
cling to their self-respect and dignity as full-fledged human beings.
That this need is deeply felt is evidenced by polls showing that the
percentage of the Palestinian population that approves of Hamas's
refusal to bow to this demand substantially exceeds the percentage
that voted for Hamas in January 2006.
Those who recognize the critical importance of Israeli-Palestinian
peace and truly seek a decent future for both peoples must recognize
that the demand that Hamas recognize "Israel's right to exist" is
unreasonable, immoral, and impossible to meet. Then, they must insist
that this roadblock to peace be removed, the economic siege of the
Palestinian territories be lifted, and the pursuit of peace with some
measure of justice be resumed with the urgency it deserves.
John V. Whitbeck, an international lawyer, is the author of, "The
World According to Whitbeck." He has advised Palestinian officials in
negotiations with Israel.
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