*What 'Israel's right to exist' means to Palestinians*
*Recognition would imply acceptance that they deserve to be treated as
*By John V. Whitbeck*/ /
*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
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 forgiven.
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
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./