On Thursday night, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution by unanimous consent supporting Israel around the same time the Israel Defense Forces launched a major ground offensive into Gaza. The latest flare up in violence has killed 274 Palestinians and one Israeli so far, but it’s going to take more than grossly lopsided casualty figures to get American lawmakers to think twice about supporting Israel, or even mention Palestinian deaths in the resolution, for that matter.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) made an all too familiar refrain after the resolution’s passage, saying, “Hamas must end its rocket and mortar attacks and recognize Israel’s right to exist.”
There’s no arguing that Hamas should cease its attacks, but the latter part of the statement goes a long way in explaining why this conflict seemingly has no end. And while Hamas (which governs Gaza) and the Palestinian Authority (which governs the West Bank), are separate entities, both have been asked repeatedly by the U.S. to recognize “Israel’s right to exist.”
This phrase — “Israel’s right to exist” — is thrown around in American politics with such abandon that you’d be forgiven for thinking that a state’s right to exist is a fundamental principle of international relations (IR) that those stubborn Palestinians just refuse to acknowledge.
But there’s a problem.
Not only is a state’s “right to exist” not a fundamental principle of IR, it’s a complete fiction.
That’s why you’ve never heard the phrases “the United States’ right to exist” or “Slovakia’s right to exist,” for example. The United States and Slovakia do not recognize one another by proclaiming each other’s “right to exist.” They recognize one another by engaging in diplomatic relations — by allowing each other to maintain embassies and by receiving each other’s ambassador. Further evidence of recognition can come in tacit forms such as trade agreements, security alliances, and mutual participation in intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations or the World Bank.
None of these activities constitute a recognition of each other’s right to exist, but rather simply each other’s existence as states in the international system. And for many centuries, this has been more than sufficient to engage in diplomatic relations and conduct foreign policy.
So when Palestinians are asked to recognize Israel’s “right to exist” as part of the dog and pony show known as the “peace process,” they are being asked to do something that in the long, storied annals of Westphalian-era diplomacy, no other state has ever had to do.
The kicker is that the Palestinians have already recognized Israel just as they would recognize any other state in the international arena.
But just for the sake of argument, let’s say the right to exist is an actual thing in IR. In which case, there is an obvious question that follows:
If the success of the peace process and the realization of a two-state solution are contingent upon Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist, why are they not also contingent upon Israel’s recognition of Palestine’s right to exist?
At no point has Israel acknowledged or been asked to acknowledge by the U.S., a Palestinian state’s right to exist. In fact, the U.S. and Israel have thrown international hissy fits at any prospect of Palestinian statehood that does not materialize with their direct blessing. In 2011 the U.S. withdrew funding from UNESCO because the organization overwhelmingly voted to grant membership to Palestine. The vote was 107 to 14 in favor, with 52 abstentions. Seemingly not without a sense of humor, the U.S. criticized the vote as a “unilateral” Palestinian attempt to achieve statehood.
So not only have the U.S. and Israel not recognized the right of Palestine to exist, but both refuse to acknowledge that Palestine even exists as a state currently, even though by and large it already possesses the characteristics of what could be called a state, including clearly defined territory and control of the principle means of force within it.
Therefore, even if we grant the existence of a “right to exist” in IR, the U.S. and Israel appear staggeringly unconcerned about reciprocating the very act they’re demanding from the Palestinians.
There’s one final additional complication worth mentioning, and it’s one that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has purposely piled on in an effort to move the goalposts. Not only does he want the Palestinians to recognize Israel’s right to exist, but Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. And in March, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas caused outraged when he refused to recognize Israel as such.
That’s not because Abbas is some wide-eyed anti-Zionist idealist who holds out hope that Israel can still be done away with. While there are historical reasons behind Abbas’ rejection, there are significant practical considerations for what that might mean for the Palestinians who live in Israel or in areas controlled by Israel, as well as those who may at some point live in what Netanyahu envisions as a “Jewish state,” however defined. Given Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories and in Israel proper, this is a serious point of contention.
The “right to exist” in IR does not in fact exist. Yet, even if recognizing a state’s right to exist did, the Palestinians have already done more to fulfill this obligation than the U.S. and Israel have in return. It is these two who, in defiance of a majority of the world’s states, will not accept Palestinian statehood unless it is a direct byproduct of negotiations with Israel as mediated by the U.S., which time and again has shown itself wholly incapable of acting as an impartial arbiter.
Although the “right to exist” is a fiction, the international norm of reciprocity is quite real. However, the problem is that it’s not being practiced in the very place it’s needed most.