Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Right you are

Alex Stein wonders whether Israel has a “right to exist”. In fact, he wonders whether any state has a right to exist. But in particular reference to Israel, he argues that there’s been a conflation of recognising the fact of its existence and recognising its right to exist.

(Me, I’m wary of the notion of group rights. If pushed, I’d say that technically, no state has the moral right to exist – but the people who live in a certain territory should have the right to form a state with the power to defend them. Of course, then you get into the issue of precisely which territory…)

Anyway, Stein says:

“De facto recognition is a clear concept in international relations; actors in the international system (state, non-state and quasi-state) only have formal relations with one another once there is mutual recognition. If the Palestinian government refuses to recognise Israel, it cannot expect Israel (and by extension many of Israel's allies) to deal with it.”

But he argues that a state’s right to exist “is an unknown concept in the international system… Asking the Palestinians to accept the right of Israel to exist is akin to asking them to accept the moral legitimacy of its creation.”

And he approvingly quotes Noam Chomsky on the concept of legitimate statehood: “The question of legitimacy just doesn't arise. There is an international order in which it is essentially agreed that states have certain rights, but that provides them with no legitimacy, Israel or anyone else.”

This doesn’t add up. Certainly, two states can recognise one another’s existence and still murderously hate each other. But all the same, formal state recognition does carry a certain normativity with it. It’s not just a matter of sayng ‘I say, are you a state? You are? Ah, OK. Pity. Well, just wait there, we’ll be back in half an hour with our guns.’

If, as Chomsky rightly notes, states have a distinct legal status in the international system, then statehood has an inherent aspect of formal legitimacy. One could ‘recognise’ that certain warlords or militias have de facto control over an area, or that a certain state (or, as the parlance goes, an ‘entity’) has in fact occupied foreign land, but with this comes absolutely no legitimacy. State recognition is different.

But this isn’t the key issue here – or, at least, the way it’s usually phrased misleads as to the nature of the key issue.

What I daresay Israelis are more worried about in terms of rejectionist attitudes to their country is not the legalistic intransigence but the murderous hatred. So when Hamas (and various other states) are asked to recognise Israel’s “right to exist”, the concern that underlies this is that they should renounce their own supposed right to destroy Israel.

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