Does the PA need to recognize Israel’s right to exist?

By Vic Rosenthal

Writing in the LA Times, Saree Makdisi, a professor of English at UCLA, finds the requirement that the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist to be either meaningless or “cynical and manipulative”. His arguments are not very good, they are not at all original (compare to John V. Whitback), and I’ll respond to them. But afterwards it’s important to see what underlies them, because this will help us understand why the conflict is not likely to be solved easily.


Makdisi writes:

First, the formal diplomatic language of “recognition” is traditionally used by one state with respect to another state. It is literally meaningless for a non-state to “recognize” a state. Moreover, in diplomacy, such recognition is supposed to be mutual. In order to earn its own recognition, Israel would have to simultaneously recognize the state of Palestine. This it steadfastly refuses to do (and for some reason, there are no high-minded newspaper editorials demanding that it do so).

Second, which Israel, precisely, are the Palestinians being asked to “recognize?” Israel has stubbornly refused to declare its own borders. So, territorially speaking, “Israel” is an open-ended concept. Are the Palestinians to recognize the Israel that ends at the lines proposed by the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan? Or the one that extends to the 1949 Armistice Line (the de facto border that resulted from the 1948 war)? Or does Israel include the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which it has occupied in violation of international law for 40 years — and which maps in its school textbooks show as part of “Israel”?

For that matter, why should the Palestinians recognize an Israel that refuses to accept international law, submit to U.N. resolutions or readmit the Palestinians wrongfully expelled from their homes in 1948 and barred from returning ever since?

In response to the first point, Israel and the Palestinians have already recognized each other in a meaningful sense, although technically there can’t be an exchange of ambassadors. The Oslo declaration of Principles, which Yasser Arafat signed on behalf of the PLO in 1993 says:

The Government of the State of Israel and the P.L.O. team (in the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to the Middle East Peace Conference) (the “Palestinian Delegation”), representing the Palestinian people, agree that it is time to put an end to decades of confrontation and conflict, recognize their mutual legitimate and political rights, and strive to live in peaceful coexistence and mutual dignity and security and achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement and historic reconciliation through the agreed political process.

The declaration goes on to establish a Palestinian Authority (PA) which is authorized to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people, and which is expected to become the government of the Palestinian state when it is established. If the Hamas-dominated PA of today would simply affirm its full acceptance of this declaration, it’s virtually certain that Israel, the US and the rest of the “quartet” would be satisfied that the requirement of recognition was met. However, the present PA has refused to make a statement like this, and has refused to say that it accepts past agreements.

In response to the second point: if it’s a requirement for recognition that there be no border disputes, then half of the nations in the world would not be able to recognize each other. Enough said.

The third point is more complicated. I presume that his reference to “international law” refers to settlements and the 4th Geneva convention. Israel does not believe that the settlements violate international law, and neither Makdisi nor I is qualified to adjudicate this. It’s obvious from the precedents set by the Sinai and Gaza withdrawals that territory that will be part of the Palestinian state in a final settlement will be completely Judenrein, so this is irrelevant anyway. As far as UN resolutions are concerned, even leaving aside the notorious bias of the UN against Israel, such resolutions are in general only honored by nations when it is to their advantage, and there are plenty of resolutions that are ignored by the PA and Arab nations.

When Makdisi talks about the Palestinian refugees ‘wrongfully’ removed from their homes, it starts to get interesting. Let me quote another piece of his article:

Israel wants the Palestinians, half of whom were driven from their homeland so that a Jewish state could be created in 1948, to recognize not merely that it exists (which is undeniable) but that it is “right” that it exists — that it was right for them to have been dispossessed of their homes, their property and their livelihoods so that a Jewish state could be created on their land. The Palestinians are not the world’s first dispossessed people, but they are the first to be asked to legitimize what happened to them.

What is going on is a disagreement (polite term) about history and its interpretation. Were Palestinians wrongfully driven from their homes, “dispossessed” so that a Jewish state could be created? Or were Jews, living on land that they had obtained legally and trying to exercise their legitimate right of self-determination in an area in which they were actually a majority (the Jewish part of the 1948 partition plan), attacked by five Arab nations who wanted to annihilate them? And did the Arab refugees then flee as a result of this war of aggression and attempted genocide? And did the Arab nations then expel significantly more Jews than the Palestinian refugees?

The fact is, as I’ve said before, that there are competing historical narratives, and what goes almost without saying in the context of one narrative turns out to be entirely false in another. Of course this doesn’t mean that both narratives are equally true. Historical analysis shows that the Zionist immigration did not dispossess any Palestinians before 1948, when the refugees were created in a war of aggression against Israel (for a mostly fair discussion of this issue, see The Palestine Refugee problem).

And then there is the elephant in the living room, the issue that no pro-Palestinian ever wants to talk about: the Palestinian responsibility for the continuation of the refugees’ misery and the non-existence of the Palestinian state, the responsibility that falls upon them as a result of their adoption of a strategy of terrorism and murder.

Makdisi and Whitback (in his better-written but still mistaken piece), seem to think that “accepting Israel’s right to exist” is the same as, in Whitback’s words, ” [forcing the Palestinians to] publicly concede that it was “right” for the Nakba to have happened” and “demand[ing] that a people who have been treated as subhumans unworthy of basic human rights publicly proclaim that they are subhumans”. It could be argued that the Palestinians in their joyous embrace of terrorism as invented and practiced by Yasser Arafat, have actually transformed themselves into subhumans; but leave this aside.

In any event, this is not the demand that we make of them. The Nakba [catastrophe of 1948] was not, historically, Israel’s fault. If anyone is to be held accountable for the flight of the refugees in 1948, it is the Arab nations; and if anyone is responsible for their continued misery it is those nations together with Arafat and his philosophical heirs. What we are asking is that they simply recognize the Jewish people’s right to self-determination as equal to their own.

It’s unlikely that the Palestinians are prepared to give up the warm moral superiority of their story of innocence and victimization for the cold light of historical fact. But this is what we are asking them to do.

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