Since the 1970s, Israel’s leaders have insisted that their Palestinian interlocutors acknowledge Israel’s “right to exist” as a pre-condition for negotiations on a settlement of the conflict.
Amongst other concessions, the governments of Israel and the United States insist that Hamas makes precisely this declaration before being allowed to join Fatah in direct talks with their Israeli counterparts.
The problem with such a demand is that no such abstract “right to exist” can be found in international law or in any serious theory of international relations.
To put it succinctly, a “right to exist” does not exist for states. Nor does such a right exist in practice. Australia, for example, does not recognise Israel’s “right to exist”. Nor do any other states.
People’s right to live in peace
The right for a state to exist should not be confused or conflated with either the right to self-determination or diplomatic recognition.
The first is a right invested in people, usually nations, who want to be governed in common as an independent or sovereign political community.
The latter is simply a political and legal convenience of international society.
Nor should Israel’s “right to exist” be confused with its people’s “right to live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries,” the wording of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242.
This right exists for all peoples regardless of their geographic location: for Israelis and Palestinians equally. Not for states.
No state has inherent legitimacy
International rights need not be enforceable to be recognised. Human rights are an important example of universal rights which are often impossible to enforce because of the absence of compliance mechanisms and sufficient global political will.
However, the recent fates of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and others are a reminder of how meaningful a right to exist would actually be for states.
States change their borders and come into and go out of existence all the time. No state has inherent legitimacy.
Proclaiming a “right to exist” gives states no additional security or greater sense of permanence in the international system.
Even if states were to reciprocally acknowledge each other’s “right to exist” (which they don’t), the suggestion that sub-state groups or political parties should do so is almost absurd.
The Liberal Party of Australia may issue policies respecting the territorial integrity of the Republic of Indonesia but it doesn’t recognise the right of the state to exist because it would be a meaningless gesture.
A barrier to peace
Nonetheless Hamas, like the PLO before it, is expected to make such a unique acknowledgement before it can even enter peace negotiations, and before the boundaries of the state it is expected to recognise are settled and internationally accepted.
The question of what it would actually be recognising by acknowledging Israel’s “right to exist” has only one answer. Hamas would be acknowledging the legitimacy of the dispossession of the Palestinian people from their homeland.
Why would they ever want to concede this, let alone as a precondition for peace negotiations? It would amount to a pre-emptive surrender.
At some point in the 1970s the right of Israelis to “live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries” morphed into the right of the state of Israel to exist.
This appears to have been part of a political strategy. By raising the threshold test beyond the point that any Palestinian group could accept, the Israelis and Americans were preventing serious negotiations towards a settlement of the conflict from proceeding.
Today they are still demanding of a political party something that has never before been required of any state. It should be a surprise to no one that this conflict is now in its seventh decade.