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Do States Have a “Right to Exist”?

In a May 17, 2018, Huffington Post article entitled, “7 Myths About the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict,” Marc Lamont Hill recontextualizes seven main debates surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and criticizes modern Israeli politics by examining Israel’s past not only from a historical point of view but from a philosophical one. Specifically, the article disputes the generally accepted argument that “Israel has a right to exist” by offering a philosophical argument against the concept of nation-states having “rights” at all. Hill’s argument dismisses a core issue in a territorial conflict simply predicated on both combatants’ “right to exist.” Additionally, the interjection of philosophy within tangible reality is wholly irrelevant to the conflict and ignores the objectives of both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Photo taken from Mount Olive looking into Jerusalem
Image courtesy of Arizona Parrot © 2008

While the discussion over Israel’s “right to exist” has pervaded public discourse for decades, such discussion usually extends from a belief in the sovereignty of a Palestinian state as well. Former President Barack Obama said in a 2009 speech, “Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s.” But those ascribing to a philosophy like Hill’s believe that accepting a nation-state’s “right to exist” means to tacitly approve of all the actions that led to the nation-state’s creation and to excuse all actions that lead to its survival. For Hill and the like, all states are created with a legacy of oppression, so to understand this and still approve of their “rights to exist” is to endorse the oppression. Instead of this approach, they suggest reconstituting historic Palestine as a democracy for all citizens regardless of race, class, gender, or religion. Despite this argument’s arguably clear philosophical foundation, it disregards the very real main issue of the conflict and replaces it with one mired in the theoretical. In the context of a two-state solution, this comment misses the mark completely and is decidedly unhelpful. Those fighting for the Palestinian state would likely disagree with this argument more so than those fighting for the Israeli state, detached from reality as it is. After all, both sides are fighting for the “right to exist.”

While it is important to understand that many Israelis may not consistently apply the “right to exist” to a Palestinian state, and vice versa, this doesn’t invalidate the notion of a “right to exist” at all, nor should the notion be discounted. When considering the one-sided application of the “right to exist,” pro-Israel proponents recall their history of regional conflict, citing the War of Independence (1948), the Six-Day War (1967), the Yom Kippur War (1973), and even 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. No other country has its existence fundamentally questioned as often as Israel does, and one would be hard-pressed to find a citizen of any state, especially Israel, ready to accept that the government of their nation has no “right to exist.” In many ways, arguments like Hill’s disproportionally place the obligation on Israel to assert its rights. It is for this reason that this view, however seemingly indiscriminate, is an adoption of the Palestinian cause.

Reconceptualizing the historic land of Palestine as an open and free democracy for people of all races and creeds is a call to end the state of Israel as it exists today. While not direct, nor violent, adopting the idea that no nation-state has the “right to exist” —and then cleverly positioning the argument within a framework of democratic freedom—is to call for a new order in the region devoid of Israel and replaced with a Palestinian state, whose scattered people vastly outnumber the region’s Jewish settlers. This attempt to provide a solution favorable to the Palestinians misses the Palestinian’s own essential argument: that their right to sovereignty is equal and no less important than the Jewish right to sovereignty, and that right is derived from a fundamental right of all nations to exist. A two-state solution with this premise in mind would be the only pathway to sustainable peace in the region. A one-state solution based on the dissolution of both sides in favor of a conceptual and impossible-to-implement democratic government would be unrealistic and eventually violent.

In a conflict defined by the rights of both sides to exist, it is not only unhelpful but entirely inappropriate to suddenly intervene with an arbitrary, new, and abstract debate over the rights of countries to exist at all. Stripping nation-states of their “right to exist” would specifically and directly affect Israel’s sovereignty in the region of Palestine, to the benefit of the Palestinians. The discussion of sovereignty is not unique to Israel; nations have fought over the issue of sovereignty and self-determination for hundreds of years. But the discussion over the right of nation-states to exist, however philosophical, however nuanced, and however new the concept of “nation” is, is a discussion that not only uniquely affects and threatens Israel, but also completely overshoots the very core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself.


Anthony Angelini

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