Posted by: sean | June 29, 2007

Saree Makdisi on recognizing Israel’s right to exist

Makdisi had an op-ed in the LA Times last March (which I didn’t see until today) about recognizing Israel’s right to exist. Saree Makdisi is Edward Said’s nephew, which I believe makes him Jean Said Makdisi’s son. In any case, the UCLA professor makes the point that expecting Palestinians to recognize Israel’s “right to exist” is absurd:

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?

If none of these questions are easy to answer, why are such demands being made of the Palestinians? And why is nothing demanded of Israel in turn?

I came across this article in the comments section (which I normally stay away from, as it’s generally populated by nutbags of the anti-Semitic and über-Zionist Arab-hating varieties) of a post by Phil Weiss on the same topic. He quotes Chomsky, who responded to Weiss’s question about recognizing Israel’s right to exist:

No state demands a ‘right to exist,’ nor is any such right accorded to any state, nor should it be.  Mexico recognizes the US, but not its ‘right to exist’ sitting on half of Mexico, acquired by aggression.  The same generalizes.

To my knowledge, the concept ‘right to exist’ was invented by US-Israeli propaganda in the 1970s, when the Arab states (with the support of the PLO) formally recognized Israel’s right to exist within secure and recognized borders (citing the wording of UN 242).  It was therefore necessary to raise the bars to prevent the negotiations that the US and Israel alone (among significant actors) were blocking, as they still are.  They understood, of course, that there is no reason why Palestinians should recognize the legitimacy of their dispossession — and the point generalizes, as noted, to just about every state; maybe not Andorra.

This is a question that I’ve often thought about and have been hesitant to comment on, even with some friends, because of the tar and feathering that automatically comes about as soon as someone questions Israel’s right to exist. I’ll write a longer piece, with my own thoughts on the matter, this weekend, but in the meantime, this point made by Makdisi seems particularly relevant to me:

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.



  1. ok this is a mess.. and let me tell you why i think so..

    (a) the UN has repeatedly declared its views on independence of states time and time again..

    (b) the palestinian failure to attain statehood is not only a matter of israeli “policy”.. look at gaza where hamas has clear power.. the place is lawless not due to a lack of order but to a lack of laws and institutions.. a state needs state organs to exist.. the palestinians at this time lack those organs and seemingly the infrastructure to support those organs..

    (c) the recognition that is sought of from the palestinians is in fact a form of negative statement.. ie whether or not deep down the palestinian public supports israel is not the issue.. but thei blatant and indoctrinated charters seeking the destruction of the state of israel is a problem.. how you can negotiate or legitimise or acknowledge someone who has been calling for your destruction time immemorial..

    (d)while there are clear differences in interpretation of the UN resolutions.. and make no mistake that they were drafted to accommodate such flexibility – i certainly dont dillude myself – the UN resolutions at no time state that they supersede a nation’s right to self defence of self determination.. who is to say that the palestinian rights under international law take precedence over ours.. thats hogwash and racist.. seriously..

    (e) the one-sided demands are also ridiculous.. israel is constantly facing demands and because we have busted ass and made something of our strip of nothing we are also deemed to be mature enough to live up to them.. while our neighbours run a double argument of (i) we’re irresponsible so dont blame us for our stuff ups BUT (ii) treat us like adults.. come on..

    (f) on the concept of the right to exist we didnt create it and nor did the americans.. but rather it was arab terrorists as well as estblished states (who joined in through acts that spoke for themselves like sanctioning rampages against their local jews) who declared that we lacked such right.. just after hitler made his announcements..

    the arabs in this battle are not so much victims as they are very unsuccessful aggressors..

    its time to dump this rhetoric and move forward.. we can keep going with this banter until the planet is hit by an asteroid..


    the euro-cafe offer still stands as far as im concerned..

  2. Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you Lirun. I’ve been super busy these last couple of days.

    a)I’m not sure why this is anything but a non-sequitor.

    b)Hamas has only just now taken “clear power” in Gaza, and by all accounts, the security situation has been taken into hand by Hamas. But as for your larger point, of course a state needs state organs to exist, but when a territory is totally (and forcibly) dependent upon another hostile neighboring country for its infrastructure, tax collection, border security and movement within the territory, it seems disingenuous to blame it for not having those organs. As for the Hamas government, it was never given a chance to govern at all, despite its democratic mandate, which is ironic considering the hand that Israel had in the rise of Hamas.

    c) The recognition that Israel seeks (one of the explicit conditions for recognizing the Hamas government) is of “Israel’s right to exist.” And it’s funny that Israel insists that its existence not only be recognized but legitimized, while people like Golda Meir could in the same breath state that Palestinians as a people did not exist.

    d) As for the “self-defense” and “self-determination,” these are merely rationalizations for Israel’s failure to live up to UN resolutions and the Geneva conventions. Throughout history, the state has used the “will of the majority” and “self defense” as excuses to target certain groups within the state that were deemed dangerous or unsavory. The Young Turks, for example, cited self defense as one of the reasons for the Armenian genocide (a genocide that Israel doesn’t recognize, by the way). There were, of course, some Armenians fighting with the Russians, but that does not excuse what was clearly immoral and illegal murderous actions by the Ottoman Empire. To my mind, there is nothing in the idea of a binational state that undermines your self defense or self determination. White South Africans of course made similar arguments that if Blacks were allowed to participate in the state and its elections that that would infringe on both their rights to self-defense and self-determination. I find your charge that universal suffrage and emancipation is “racist” absolutely laughable, and more than a little ironic.

    e) What demands does Israel face, exactly, and from whom? Any time a UNSC resolution critical of Israel comes to a vote, it is vetoed by the US. Israel has been constantly asked to cease illegal settlements in the West Bank and to stop the wall, or at least run it along the Green Line, but both of those “demands” (polite requests, really) have been unheeded. Settlements continue and the wall has not been rerouted.

    f) No state has ever insisted on its “right to exist” except for Israel and its lobby in the US. This is an absurd request, one that I find adds insult to injury for the people who were ethnically cleansed in order for that state to exist. The US is a state, but it never asked the Native American nations that it dispossessed to recognize the legitimacy of that dispossession. Likewise, no Aborigine has ever been asked to validate his society’s destruction by the settler state of Australia.

    As for “the Arabs” being unsuccessful aggressors, that’s just ridiculous. Unsuccessful defenders of Palestinian land, very much so. Go to a refugee camp in Bethlehem (a city that’s being cut apart by the Israeli wall, by the way) and tell an old woman there or one of her grandchildren living in squalid hovels that you and your people are really the victims. Now that’s what I call chutzpah.

  3. hey mate..

    sad to say it.. but i kind of see our discussions as pointless..

    you can continue to spout your anti-israeli sentiments and i will stop trying to voice objection..

    just because its well phrased doesnt make it true.. just because you apply jargon doesnt give this stuff any flesh..

    however – one thing for certain – it definitely wont promote a solution..

  4. “anti-Israeli jargon?”

    This is the oldest trick in the book. Anyone voicing even the mildest criticism of Israel is a raging anti-Semetic, racist, holocaust denier scum bag. Yawn. Find another argument!

  5. Second oldest trick in the book: Attacking my spelling mistake of anti-semitic for a lack of anything substantial to say!

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