Right to Exist: An Inflated Conflict
May 30, 2011

Right to Exist: An Inflated Conflict

If one follows the negotiation process over the years between Israel and Palestine, one finds an asymmetry between the issues raised and argued for in the negotiation process and the the political and media rhetoric. One of the issues that is largely absent from the negotiation process but is overwhelmingly discussed by the political and media class in the west is the so called 'Right to Exist'.  Despite the fanfare, this is a manufactured and largely empty problem.

As the negotiations make very clear, everyone - Palestinians included - has a tacit or de facto acknowledgement about the existence of the other party. They are negotiating a two state solution where unambiguously the other state is Israel. At the political level, they are implicitly acknowledging Israel and its continuing existence. The realpolitik of the situation on the ground is that Palestinians acknowledge the existence of Israel in any pragmatic way one can consider except for the religious sense.

The desire to get Palestinians to claim a right to exist is not a political claim but a religious one. The Palestinians believe, as do the Israelis, that they have a religious claim to the entire land. Getting, someone to renounce a religious claim is both nearly impossible and, as we shall see, largely meaningless. Imagine if Palestine was a Christian nation and was asked to renounce, say, the divinity of Jesus Christ as a condition of a political settlement! It is entirely possible for Jews and Muslims alike to live in a peaceful settlement while they both believe religiously that the land ought to be all theirs. However, if we condition only one side to effectively renounce a religious belief it is unlikely we are going to get there.

Because it is a religious claim, it has very nebulous actual effects. Contrast this with, say, the 'Right of Return'  of Palestinian Arabs back into Israel which is looking increasingly unlikely but was long a goal of the peace process).  That would be a very legitimate and real effect that would directly affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. We should focus on negotiations where concessions are ones that have genuine effects on people's lives. A jihadist Palestinian who does not renounce his religious belief is just as likely to commit terrorism on Israel regardless of whether the peace agreement has codified this right or not; it doesn't make a practical difference the way right of return does.

It is worth noting that making explicit a right of the other party to exist is not something that is ever  part of disputes settlements between countries. As just one example, the Protestant/Catholic schism in Northern Ireland did not contain any mention in its peace settlement of any religious claims or an explicit right to exist of either party. Peace negotiations are almost always secular in nature acknowledging a political agreement to live at peace, not about ones religious claims. Even countries that have no major disagreement never codify in international law any "right to exist"; nowhere does Canada recognize the US's right to exist today despite early periods of conflict in their history.

The Israel/Palestine conflict is often presented as a fundamental clash of religions. The fighting is, allegedly, explicitly and entirely because of a religious conflict and it is that religious disagreement that prevents peace. If one believes this, it is I suppose reasonable in some sense that fixing the religious conflict (ie getting one side to renounce its religious claims) is necessary for peace. However, I reject the premise that this is entirely a religious conflict. That is a factor, but like all conflicts there are many factors such as socioeconomic, strategic, militaristic and the like that are the larger determinants of violent conflict. Indeed, conflicts around the world have had seemingly intractable cultural differences that overtime and with hard work on peace have been ameliorated and a lasting peace established. There is no reason that peace cannot be resolved without resolving the religious conflict which has, at best, an amplifying effect. To disagree is, I think, equivalent to nihilism about the possibility of peace. We must focus on resolving the various human factors that we can plausibly change and let the intractable religious conflict become not resolved but irrelevant.

There is a legitimate question about having negotiations with an honest broker. It is presented that acknowledging the right to exist is a necessary thing to happen if Palestine can be trusted with peace. This view is overstating the importance of the religious claim as a determinant for peace. Whether it is militaristically possible, whether it is economically in their interests, and whether there is a will for continued fighting among the people and their leaderships are a selection of other factors that I believe are more important determinants and indeed it is these other factors that repeat themselves from conflict to conflict while the ostensible cultural clashes that are the pretext change or don't even exist at all in some cases. If one looks at the history of peace negotiations, I can not think of an example where peace was obtained by resolving the cultural pretext for conflict. Instead, it occurs because the other conditions and factors go in the right direction and with hard work in negotiations and more than a little luck peace can occur. Overtime, the cultural conflict gets ameliorated through declining prominence in peoples decisions but the point to take note of is that this is a secondary result from peace not the thing to be fixed in order for peace. Those asserting right to exist as precondition for peace are choosing the wrong factor in the wrong order.

Since I clearly don't give it much importance, one must ask the question why it is given so much importance by so many others. Partly, I think, it is legitimately unsettling when a conflicting party doesn't recognize ones right to exist and while we may intellectually acknowledge the relative unimportance of this issue as a determinant for peace we may still emotionally wish it was different. The larger factor, however, is I believe a product of the power asymmetry in Israel's favor and serves as a stalling tactic (stalling being perceived as in Israel's favor because Palestine has gotten consistently weaker over the decades and settlement activity allows for Israeli encroachment). Since rejecting the religious claim is so unpalatable and unacceptable (even if it makes no difference on the ground) when Israel insists on it as a precondition it is equivalent to stalling the peace process at that point. It is also a largely winning issue for them because of both local Israeli and world sentiment that Palestine should indeed recognize Israel's right to exist it provides a fairly risk free stalling tactic.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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bazie said...

Comments were temporarily disabled. I am posting an emailed comment here:


You recently wrote,

"As the negotiations make very clear, everyone - Palestinians included - has a tacit or de facto acknowledgement about the existence of the other party. They are negotiating a two state solution where unambiguously the other state is Israel."

Whereas a two-state solution may be the most popular idea currently, before this can be considered tacit acknowledgement shouldn't you also consider whether the two-state solution has been, or will be, the most popular idea? Don't you need to consider the other ideas being considered, and their proponents, and the popularity of those ideas over time?

Acknowledge of Israel's right to exist seems to be a somewhat but not wholly religious issue. The meta-issue is that, since it's so obviously a bad strategy, and since lying is an option, the fact that the Hamas leadership isn't willing at least lie about it suggests their concerns are more inwardly than outwardly focused. That suggests that whether they are honest brokers or not, they are unreliable brokers.

bazie said...

Regarding "other options" than a two state solution, I think this is a reasonable discussion to have. Indeed, if we could rewind the clock to 1947, I would probably take the view of thinking a single secular, binational state would be best. If you have any other reasonable solutions I would to hear about them.

That said, we must recognize that the only option that is discussed at any significant level by the political class is precisely the two state solution. All the negotiations thus far, all the statements by world leaders, the leadership of both israel, PLO and even hamas are working towards a two state solution. And iirc, but it should be checked, popular opinion in both nations is fairly supportive of the two state solution. So while other options should be discussed, I think it is reasonable to focus entirely on the two state model because it is the one that is in the open and has a real chance of success.

As to hamas, I don't think lying really is an option. Firstly, I highly doubt they would do that as it is equivalent to rejecting a pretty core religious claim. However, I don't think they either need to in order to accomplish peace - since it makes no realistic difference on the ground - and if they DID lie about it then that is basically proving they are liers and hence not honest brokers. The question is: can peace occur while they still legitimately believe this? I think it can.

If we are going to worry about rhetoric opposed to realpolitik, I think the first major rhetorical step that needs to be taken on the hamas side is rejecting their founding covenant. They can keep their religious claims, but can strengthen previous pledges towards nonviolence and the like. Of course, Israel can also make many rhetorical changes.

Adam said...

Are there reasons to suppose that the 'right to exist' is a religious claim, other than the tacit acknowledgement implied by discussions of a two-state solution?

The current lack of trust between sides would seem to imply that the fear of being seen as a dishonest broker is not a very strong disincentive to deception.

bazie said...

I am not sure I understand your question. "Right to exist" is a political claim. It contradicts the religious claims that both religions have of territorial promises to the region. One can find the appropriate torah and koran verses. So there is this underlying conflict between conflicting religious claims. The "right to exist" however is purely political and is, essentially, asking one side to renounce their religious claim.

As for trust, I think a distinction should be made between trusting people as being genuine and trusting people to be constrained by the realpolitik of the situation. Most peace agreements are based on a situation on the ground where it becomes clearly in the benefit of both parties to remain in peace. People focus a lot on whether they are sort of a priori trustworthy and I think this is a mistake.

Adam said...

I think the long-term strategic situation depends a lot on what sort of memes inhabit the Palestinian culture. There would seem to be a risk involved in allowing them to gain strength under a peace agreement, if the boundary-conditions (so to speak) of such an agreement are not sufficiently likely to send them on a positive (from the Israeli perspective) trajectory.

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