On the spurious idea of a nation’s “right to exist”

A bit about this whole “right to exist” that preoccupies Israeli political discourse:

Assuming any sense can be given to the concept of a “right” at all—it probably can’t; it certainly hasn’t—the origins of virtually any nation-state are so noxious, and so certain to have violated many hundreds of thousands of “rights” in the process of their establishment—that no state has the “right to exist.”

Of course, Israel and its defenders assume that to deny a “right to exist” is to endorse the dissolution of that the thing being denied. But this doesn’t follow. “Right” or not, the state of Israel does exist—and so do all the other states without the “rights” to do so. The question is not whether these entities have a right to exist, but whether it would be moral to dissolve them. Removing Israel as a national entity would be so reprehensible, cause so much pain and chaos—violate so many “rights,” if you like—that any such program would be immoral. The Israeli state—any state—should be suffered to exist not because it has the “right,” but because bringing about the alternative to its existence would be wrong.

For this reason, demanding that Hamas recognize Israel’s “right to exist” before any negotiations or concessions can proceed is unreasonable—because the concept is unreasonable. But even if it were reasonable—that is, even if Israel actually had a “right to exist”—it wouldn’t mean that a demand that others recognize that fact is reasonable. I mean, if Israel has a right to exist, it has many other things as well—say, lush hillsides. Should we demand that Hamas recognize Israel’s lush hillsides before anything can happen? Again, since a right to live in security, or defend itself, does not depend on any “right to exist,” we should no more care how a political party in a neighboring region feels about Israel’s “right to exist” than we should care how it likes its eggs in the morning.

Noam Chomsky’s analysis seems to me correct: An abstract “right to exist” is unique to the Israel-Palestine conflict; it isn’t talked about anywhere else in political science. It emerged in the 1970’s when the Arab states accepted Israel’s “right to live in peace with secure and recognized boundaries.” This, of course, is something all states are minimally granted—it’s more or less a part of the very definition of statehood.

When certain Israeli political elements sought to obstruct meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, they elevated the standard from the usual “right to live in peace (etc.)” to this goofy “right to exist.” They knew that Palestinian negotiators would feel a “right to exist” would validate of the origins of Israel—the dispossession of Palestinian lands out of which Israel was carved. They knew this was too much for the Palestinians to swallow, and would buy Israel time to create new “facts on the ground”—namely, the settlements, which make negotiations, and concessions of land by Israel, even harder.

By analogy: Let’s say you have built a house on my land without my consent. I’ve fought you for years about it but now I realize what’s done is done. You have a house and it isn’t going away. I agree to let you “live in peace and security,” which is little more than to recognize you as, indeed, my neighbor. But as soon as I endorse your “right to” live there, I suggest that it was OK for you to have stolen the land in the first place. This is another matter entirely.


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