FM: John Whitbeck
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
"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
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
grotesque and fundamental immorality of this demand and of the bizarre
verbal formulation on which it is based, whose use and abuse have
already caused so much misery and threaten to cause more.