Avoiding Ambiguity on the Right to Exist


Ha’aretz, March 17, 2006


In the summer and fall of 1988, when contact between U.S. officials and the PLO was not allowed by law and policy, I was one of a number of private individuals who traveled to Tunis to see if there was a way in which the PLO could accept the three conditions that were required before dialogue with them would be permitted: acceptance of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, a renunciation of terrorism, and recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Recent statements by U.S. and Israeli officials, specifying various conditions that Hamas must satisfy, suggest that there are lessons still to be learned from past experience with the PLO.

            I recall one conversation with PLO leaders in particular. I was meeting with Khalid al-Hassan, one of the senior leaders in Fatah and a moderate. Hassan said the PLO could accept the first two conditions, but the third, recognizing Israel’s right to exist “was ideology.” Initially, this was puzzling, because the PLO was seeking to enter into negotiations with Israel in order to end the conflict through the creation of an independent Palestinian State.

            Yet, Hassan’s point was well taken. First of all, the concept of a state having a right to exist was, and is, outside the conceptual bounds of existing international law. It had no standing meaning. Was the right being referred to a legal right or a moral right? And more fundamentally, did it refer to a right to have come into existence, or a right to remain in existence?

            When Hassan said the affirmation of Israel’s right to exist was ideology, he was interpreting it as an affirmation that Israel had a moral right to come into existence. As to Israel’s right, under international law, to come into existence, within a few months, the PLO reversed the historic stance of Palestinian nationalism. On November 15, 1988, in the text of its Declaration of Independence, the PLO affirmed for the first time that the historic Partition Resolution of 1947, (UNGA Res. 181) was part of valid international law, thus accepting that Israel came into being lawfully. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence specifically noted the factual truth that the Partition Resolution provided for “two states, one Arab and one Jewish.”

            What the PLO did not say, then or ever, was that Israel had a moral right to come into being. To do this would be to affirm the central ideological tenet of the Zionist movement. While such a view was widely shared by much of the world in 1947, there was virtually no Palestinian in the world who believed that then, hardly any that believed it in 1988, and scarcely more today.

            Moreover, from the point of view of policy, the question of PLO views about Israel’s birth was really of secondary importance to whether or not it was prepared to make a lasting peace agreement with Israel, thus ending the conflict.

            Ultimately, in December of 1988, a month after the Declaration of Independence, specific statements by the PLO were accepted by the Reagan administration as fulfillment of the three conditions, and the U.S.-PLO dialogue began. It is instructive to consider exactly how the PLO dealt with the “right to exist” condition. The key event was a special meeting of the UN General Assembly, which convened in Geneva to hear Arafat (the Reagan administration refused to allow him into New York). But it was not his speech to the General Assembly that proved satisfactory to the U.S.; rather, it was a statement Arafat read at a press conference he gave the following day. Referring to his speech of the day before, Arafat said “we mean…the right of all parties concerned in the Middle East conflict to exist in peace and security, including the State of Palestine, Israel and other neighbors, according to Resolution 242 and 338.” He then went on to “renounce all forms of terrorism, including individual, group and state terrorism.”

            Reporters attending the press conference assumed that this, too, would prove an inadequate effort. To their surprise, hours later, the State Department announced that the United States had accepted Arafat’s statement as PLO fulfillment of the three conditions.

            What Arafat did was to take the thoroughly ambiguous concept of “right to exist” and imbed it within the familiar notion that existing states have a right to exist in peace and security. Moreover, he linked Israel’s right to exist in peace and security to the extension of the same right to the state of Palestine. In short, he was saying that peace and security for Israel could be attained in the context of a solution to the conflict which provided the Palestinians with a state of their own, also having peace and security. Wisely, the Reagan Administration accepted his formulation.

            Interestingly, Israel’s peace treaties with both Jordan and Egypt drop the term “exist” and have both parties recognizing each other’s “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries.” Moreover, this was the result of negotiations, not a precondition. Had it been a precondition, no negotiations would have occurred.

            One lesson in all this is that words matter. Verbal preconditions, either by cynical intention or inadvertence, can ensure that groups seeking to come in from the cold are kept outside. The conditions that the PLO met in 1988 were imposed in 1975, thirteen years earlier. A strong case can be made that as preconditions for contact and dialogue, they retarded rather than hastened the evolution of the PLO.

            With respect to Hamas, it may be that the same is true. For instance, Hamas has indicated its willingness, under certain conditions, to enter into a long-term truce with Israel. In negotiations, Israel might seek an agreement that explicitly proclaims the end of the conflict. But attaining this might only be possible once the process of negotiations has been long under way.

            If, despite their questionable wisdom, various verbal affirmations are required as a precondition to contact and negotiations, great care should be taken in how they are formulated. Surely it would be best to avoid the ambiguities of “right to exist.” Don’t ask or expect Palestinians to accept the same moral narratives that are held by Israeli Jews and friends of Israel.

            Finally, if the objective is to promote the evolution of Hamas, then it would be wise to shift the focus from verbal affirmations to a focus on behavior (e.g. no suicide bombings) and their committing to a process that could potentially lead to an end-of-conflict agreement. For instance, it could be required that Hamas specifically affirm: a) that Mahmoud Abbas, as head of the PLO, is the recognized Palestinian agent for negotiations with Israel, and b) that Hamas would accept as binding any negotiated treaty that was approved in a referendum of the Palestinian people.