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March 20, 2006

Israel's "right to exist"

My colleague Jerry Segal is also president of the Jewish Peace Lobby. He has an interesting recent editorial in Ha'aretz in which he recalls his meeting with senior PLO officials in Tunis in 1988. They were willing to accept peace with the state of Israel and to renounce terrorism, but not to accept Israel's "right to exist." Khalid al-Hassan, a Fatah official, told Segal that this right was "ideology."

Segal explains that to accept Israel's "right to exist" is ambiguous. It could just mean that Israel, as a member of the United Nations, may not be invaded or threatened with conquest. However, given the way the phrase is commonly used, it could imply that it was morally legitimate to create a Jewish state in the Middle East in 1948; in other words, that Israel had a moral right to exist from its birth. That affirmation is too much to ask of a Palestinian, who may believe that the foundation of Israel was a violation of the Arab residents' rights.

Speaking for myself, I think that it was legitimate, on balance, to partition Palestine and to create a Jewish state in one portion of the territory. But there were reasonable people on all sides (including Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber) who disagreed. In any case, the Palestinians' obligation today is only to make peace with the actual state of Israel. They shouldn't be required to affirm that its foundation was legitimate. After all, almost all states have dubious origins--including the United States, which traces its history to European conquest of Native Americans' land. Nevertheless, the United States has a right under Article II of the UN Charter not to be attacked or threatened with attack. This right seems justified because: (a) millions of Americans have made homes in US territory and support the US government, and (b) peace and development are generally best served if nation-states "live together in peace with one another as good neighbours."

Thus Hamas (which has a right, thanks to its electoral victory, to control its own nascent nation-state) should be pressed to undertake a peace treaty with Israel that sets legitimate and inviolable borders. Such a treaty would recognize Israel as a legitimate party to negotiations with the Palestinian state--something that Hamas currently resists. But Hamas should not be pressed to acknowledge Israel's "right to exist," which (in the context of the historical debate) means acknowledging that the Zionist project was right from the start. That would be a humiliating -- and unneccessary -- abandonment of some core principles of Palestinian and Arab nationalist ideology. Members of Hamas may retain a permanent grievance about '48 as long as they accept Israel as a fait accompli and renounce war.

Posted by peterlevine at March 20, 2006 08:37 AM

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