The Middle East Channel

Who is ‘delegitimizing’ whom?

Shlomo Avineri, a leading Israeli intellectual and politically very much a centrist, is to be commended for dismissing Israeli fears that outside criticism of their country’s occupation policies is an effort to challenge Israel’s very right to exist. Writing in Ha’aretz, Avineri notes there is not a single country in the world that maintains diplomatic ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Shlomo Avineri, a leading Israeli intellectual and politically very much a centrist, is to be commended for dismissing Israeli fears that outside criticism of their country’s occupation policies is an effort to challenge Israel’s very right to exist. Writing in Ha’aretz, Avineri notes there is not a single country in the world that maintains diplomatic ties with Israel that has ever questioned the legitimacy of Israel’s existence.

Avineri maintains that whatever political problems might result for Netanyahu’s government from a United Nations decision to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, it would in no sense "delegitimize" the state of Israel. On the contrary: recognizing Palestine within 1967 borders, he argues, would result in the international recognition of the 1967 lines as the border of Israel, which would mean recognition for the first time of West Jerusalem as a legitimate part of the state of Israel. Avineri concludes, therefore, that "there are no significant moves afoot anywhere on Earth to delegitimize Israel."

He is right. But it apparently eludes Avineri that there is nevertheless a threat to Israel’s legitimacy that comes not from outside Israel but from within: the refusal of its government to set a border between itself and the territory inhabited by millions of Palestinians living under its occupation.

Every effort exerted to date by even the friendliest of countries — including the United States — to get Israel to accept the 1967 border, with provisions for mutually-agreed territorial swaps to accommodate Jewish settlement blocs past the 1967 line, has been rejected by Israel. More than that, Israel’s government has refused to declare where it believes that border should be.

Of course, there have been broad hints of what Israeli leaders expect to be the consequence of their policy of deliberate obfuscation of their territorial ambitions. For example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that in addition to a large number of settlements, Israel must retain the entire Jordan Valley, which alone constitutes 30 percent of the West Bank. Their expectation is that if they manage to draw out a meaningless peace process indefinitely, enabling them to continue the expansion of Israel’s colonial enterprise in the West Bank, "facts on the ground" will continue to move Israel’s border to include 60 percent of the West Bank.

The point of the foregoing is that by rejecting the terms of its own membership in the United Nations — in this case the respect for international borders — and seeking to acquire by violent means (i.e. its army and air force) territory beyond these borders in violation of international law and bilateral treaties, it is in fact Israel that is engaged in the "delegitimization" of the Palestinian people’s right to national self determination and statehood, not the reverse.

For proof of this one need look no further than Israel’s near-hysterical efforts to prevent the Palestinians from bringing their case to the United Nations, the institution that happens to be the source of Israel’s own legitimacy, as acknowledged in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. For what Israel’s current government apparently most fears is the legitimacy that the United Nations uniquely can confer not only on Palestinian statehood but on the 1967 borders.

A state that since 1967 (i.e. for most of its existence) has imposed a military occupation on its neighbor, confiscating its territory and dispossessing its population, is guilty not only of an abstract challenge to its neighbor’s claim to statehood but of violently preventing it on the ground. Such rogue-like behavior does indeed bring Israel’s own legitimacy into question.

But does not a Palestinian state pose legitimate security concerns for Israel? Of course it does. But given Israel’s overwhelming military superiority, not to speak of the one-sided support it receives from the world’s greatest military power, its security concerns are nowhere near the security concerns that Palestinians have about an Israeli state, particularly one under whose occupation and subjection they have now lived for nearly half-a-century. Israel can no more deal with its security concerns by denying the Palestinians’ right to a state of their own within 1967 borders than Palestinians can deny Israel’s right to statehood within the 1967 borders to satisfy their security concerns.

Before casting the promised veto at the United Nations that would deny Palestinians their right to national self-determination, President Obama might well want to rethink the fairness, legality, and morality of such a course, not to speak of its damage to America’s credibility in the region and beyond. It is damage the will continue to haunt him and the country well into his next term, should he achieve it. Surely he must know that no one anywhere believes any longer that the peace process as its exists, to which he has urged Palestinians to entrust their future, promises anything other than hopelessness and despair.

Henry Siegman, President of the U.S./Middle East Project, is a non-resident visiting professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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