Monday, February 19, 2007

The recognition trap

Condoleezza Rice is visiting Jerusalem, but nothing will change until the Quartet drops its demand for Hamas to accept Israel's right to exist.

February 19, 2007 1:10 PM

Alex Stein

It better be worth it, I thought to myself, as I waited for my heavily delayed bus to take me into town. The reason for the delay? Condoleezza Rice's latest "babysitting" visit, this time for a three-way summit with Ehud Olmert and Abu Mazen, at the David's Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem.

As the bus finally arrived, I suppressed my hysteria and reminded myself that the meeting would have about as much chance of resurrecting the Middle East peace process as my trilateral pint the previous night with fellow Comment is free bloggers Seth Freedman and Josh Freedman Berthoud.

There are many reasons for the moribund state of Israeli-Palestinian relations at the moment, but the central issue is that of recognition. One of the Quartet's demands for ending the boycott on the Palestinians is that the new government recognise Israel. This is clear enough. De facto recognition is a clear concept in international relations; actors in the international system (state, non-state and quasi-state) only have formal relations with one another once there is mutual recognition. If the Palestinian government refuses to recognise Israel, it cannot expect Israel (and by extension many of Israel's allies) to deal with it.

But it's not that simple. The issue of Palestinian recognition of Israel has been deliberately conflated with another idea - that of Israel's "right to exist". This is an unknown concept in the international system, and seems to have been invented by Israel/America in the 1970s, so as to raise the bar even further in response to tentative steps by the PLO towards acceptance of a two-state solution. Asking the Palestinians to accept the right of Israel to exist is akin to asking them to accept the moral legitimacy of its creation.

The best response to this question has been provided by Noam Chomsky, who was asked if Israel was a legitimate state. In other words, does Israel have a "right to exist"?

I don't think the notion of legitimacy of a state means very much. Is the United States a legitimate state? It's based on genocide; it conquered half of Mexico. What makes it legitimate? The way the international system is set up, states have certain rights; that has nothing to do with their legitimacy.

Every state you can think of is based on violence, repression, expulsion, and all sorts of crimes. And the state system itself has no inherent legitimacy. It's just an institutional form that developed and was imposed with plenty of violence.

The question of legitimacy just doesn't arise. There is an international order in which it is essentially agreed that states have certain rights, but that provides them with no legitimacy, Israel or anyone else.

The demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel is a reasonable one, and it's incredibly frustrating that Hamas has not yet done so. While I understand what brought Hamas to power, it is beyond me why they don't have enough sense of realpolitik to issue some sort of brief statement recognising that the international system contains a state by the name of Israel.

This would truly put the ball in the court of the Israeli government, which has never genuinely acknowledged the right of the Palestinians to a fair and viable state. The reason for this refusal, I fear, lies in the intransigence that goes to the heart of all fundamentalist movements - to recognise Israel would go against Hamas' very raison d'etre. If this is the case, then the Palestinian tragedy looks set to continue.

Either way, though, the demand that Hamas recognise Israel's "right to exist" is an absurd one. Uri Avnery described it in the following way: "Must a Native American recognise the right of the United States of America to exist?"

I do not expect the Palestinians to particularly like the fact that Israel exists. In this I concur with Vladimir Jabotinsky, who acknowledged that Zionism would entail, at least partly, the dispossession of the Palestinians, and who also understood that they did not have to like it in order to accept it.

I am of the belief that sufficient numbers of Palestinians do recognise Israel's existence and are keen to make peace with it. The Iron Wall has worked. Calls for them to go an extra step and accept our "right to exist" are designed in the knowledge that they will not be fulfilled, so as to preclude the possibility of a lasting settlement.

Until this demand is dropped, there will be no progress, no matter how much "babysitting" Condi does.

Alex Stein grew up in London, and went to university at Manchester and Cambridge.

He is a freelance writer and educator based in Jerusalem.

He blogs at and can be emailed at

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