Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

Pushing Israel’s Right To Exist Is The Wrong Strategy

Neither Israel nor the United States needs an “Israel’s right to exist” certificate from Hamas in order to have dealings with that movement. To insist on this precondition for contact not only places an unnecessary obstacle on the road to dealing with the Hamas-led government in the Palestinian Authority. It also sends a subtle and disturbing message that Israel lacks the necessary self-confidence to deal with its enemies and solve some of its problems with them.

Israel’s “Operation Summer Rains” in Gaza has pushed this issue temporarily to the back burner. But almost certainly not for long. Assuming Hamas’s P.A. government survives, in some form, the current assault, and in view of Hamas’s decision to adhere to the “Prisoners’ Document,” the issue may again soon dominate what is left of the Israeli-Palestinian political process.

Two of the three international conditions for engaging Hamas are no-brainers: If Hamas can’t acknowledge existing agreements — including the Oslo accords that established the P.A. that Hamas now heads — and pledge to abandon violence, it is hard to imagine either Jerusalem or Washington having productive contacts with it.

But what of the third condition, usually defined as “recognizing Israel’s right to exist”? So central has it become to the case against Hamas that, according to a report in these pages last week, the Senate passed the Hamas bill on June 23 only after John Sununu, a Republican of Arab descent, exercised all his skills in pilpul and succeeded in changing its language from “recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state” to “acknowledge the Jewish state of Israel’s right to exist.”

Sununu was almost outdone by the policy doves who insisted that Hamas’s recent acceptance of the “Prisoners’ Document” implied it did indeed recognize Israel’s right to exist. This, even though that document mentions neither Israel, a two-state solution nor a single specific international resolution that endorses Israel’s right to exist, and despite Hamas’s own protests that its signature on the document in no way conveyed recognition of Israel.

The “right to exist” controversy ignores the lessons of Israeli-Arab peacemaking. There can be little doubt that the stubborn Palestinian insistence that Israel accept the “right of return” of 1948 refugees, alongside the refusal to acknowledge Jewish roots on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, were the two biggest stumbling blocks of the final, abortive phase of the Oslo process in 2000 and 2001.

In Israeli eyes, these positions do indeed constitute a refusal to come to terms with Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in the historic homeland of the Jewish people. Hence they justify Israeli suspicions of Palestinian motives. If and when final status talks are renewed, no end-of-conflict agreement can be reached unless these “existential” issues are resolved to Israel’s satisfaction.

This reflects the fundamental difference between Israel’s peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt and a potential agreement with the Palestinians. The peace treaties with Israel’s neighbor states contain no Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist or even of its existence. They are based on the reaffirmation of long-standing international borders, a resolution of mutual claims, an end-of-conflict pact, and agreement on diplomatic and other relations between two sovereign states.

In the same vein, I have met very few Arabs who are prepared to endorse Israel’s right to exist, but many who are ready to coexist with it. Nor has Israel made a fuss over the issue. Israel, Egypt and Jordan could make their peace while ignoring the heavy existential narrative issues — the events of 1948, the significance of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, Israel’s very Zionist “raison d’etre” — that separate Israelis and Palestinians.

Palestinians, unlike their Arab brethren, will probably have to endorse Israel’s right to exist in order truly to end our conflict. But why insist on prior recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a condition of entry into a peace process?

In Palestinian eyes, this is akin to demanding that Palestinians forego their own formative historical-existential narratives without even negotiating them. For if Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state, then one may surmise that the entire Palestinian narrative of exile, refugee status and “return” is based on a lie because it assigns to Israel’s very creation the “original sin” that generated the conflict.

These are heavy issues that may never be resolved. Hamas, to its credit, states explicitly that it can never sign a peace agreement with Israel precisely because it cannot recognize its right to exist. I’m not so sure the Fatah old guard — Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas — really think differently. Yet there are lots of painful “non-existential” issues — territory, security, water, most demographic-geographic aspects of Jerusalem — that experience shows can be resolved between Israel and a viable Palestinian partner without engaging the “right to exist” issues and without signing an end-of-conflict peace treaty.

Hamas may or may not potentially be that partner. But let’s not prejudge the question. To insist that the Palestinian side, in this case Hamas, recognize Israel’s right to exist as a condition for engaging it is to put the cart before the horse. As much has been said by Efraim Halevi, a former head of Mossad and national security adviser who was a lead architect of Israel’s relationship with Jordan. Indeed, polls show that fully half the Israeli public is ready to negotiate with Hamas — regardless of all three conditions.

As matters stand, Hamas has the more reasonable and realistic conditions to comply with first. If, for instance, the two sides agree on a cease-fire to end the current conflict in Gaza, this could be interpreted as a Palestinian end-of-violence pledge. The new Palestinian coalition or technocrat government that Abbas, the president, and Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister, have reportedly agreed on could easily acknowledge the validity of previous agreements.

It would be a pity if, at that point, the “right to exist” controversy were to hold up even a modicum of coordination between the two sides — for instance, regarding Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s convergence plan.

Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.