During the recent conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, Prime Minister Howard said that “until there is an acceptance in the entire Arab world of Israel’s right to exist and an embrace of the two state solution, we’re never going to have a lasting peace” in the Middle East. The refusal of Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas “to accept Israel’s right to exist is still at the core of the whole dispute.”

Howard was treading a well worn path for those who are unequivocally pro-Israel in Middle East debates. Both his general approach to the conflict and the specific phrases he employs to discuss it were originally forged in Washington. According to Israel’s supporters, recognition of Israel’s “right to exist” by its enemies is not a diplomatic bargaining chip but a prerequisite for negotiations. No equivalent “right to exist” need be accorded the Palestinian state, either before or after talks designed to resolve the dispute.

Does such a “right to exist” actually exist, for Israel or any other state? It’s an important question which international lawyers are reluctant to answer.

According to some theorists from the “realist” tradition of international relations, states have no “right” to exist because such a right cannot be enforced by a higher authority than the state. There are no guarantees of survival in this world, as Yugoslavia, the USSR and East Germany, to name only three recent disappearances, discovered. Acknowledging a state’s right to exist, or insisting on such a pledge from others, is therefore a meaningless gesture — or worse, a political tactic.

States extend diplomatic recognition to each other for a variety of reasons, including the demarcation of boundaries, resource exploitation, and treaty cooperation. Much of international law is based on mutual recognition — none is based on a state’s “right to exist”. Acknowledgement of a state’s existence does not grant it a “right to exist.”
For example, Australia’s indigenous population recognises the existence of the Australian state but many Aborigines would reject Australia’s “right to exist” because this would be acknowledging the legitimacy and legality of their own dispossession, including the violence of European colonialism which smashed their culture.

There is scant evidence of the phrase “right to exist” before the mid-1970s, when the US and Israel began demanding that the Palestinians recognise Israel’s “right to exist” — that is, not only accept a two-state settlement, but recognise the legitimacy of their expulsion. That is something they will never do, just as Mexico doesn’t recognise the right of the US to exist on Mexican lands north of the Rio Grande.  As Noam Chomsky has suggested, it is likely the phrase was invented after several Arab states and the PLO recognised the right of the Israeli people “to live in peace and security within recognised borders,” as in UN Security Council Resolution 242, but with a Palestinian state accorded the same rights. By raising the bar impossibly high, the US and Israel evaded the fact that they alone were barring the international consensus on a two-state settlement, which has been true since 1976 (when the US vetoed the first two-state UN Security Council resolution, supported by the Arab states and the PLO), until the present.

Both Israel and the Palestinians have fed off a national self-determination/sovereignty discourse for decades to make their respective cases. But Israel’s insistence that its Palestinian interlocutors acknowledge Israel’s “right to exist” as a prerequisite to negotiations on “land for peace,” rather than as part of a just and final settlement of the conflict, has always been tactical. Unsurprisingly, the Palestinians have been reluctant to formalise their own dispossession, especially in the face of a Zionist discourse which doesn’t mention reciprocal Arab rights or existence.
To summarise again, while states are certainly recognised within the international system, their “right to exist” is not. The question of legitimacy therefore doesn’t arise. This is as true of Australia, the US and China as it is of Israel.

As an “unapologetic supporter,” Mr Howard suggests that if only Israel’s enemies acknowledged its legitimacy, and issued formal statements acknowledging its “right to exist,” peace in the region would be found. For reasons never explained, the onus is on Persian and Arab states effectively to surrender prior to negotiations towards a settlement. Unsurprisingly, they won’t.

Howard talks about terrorism and Palestinian violence. He carefully avoids mentioning the illegal and brutal occupation of Arab lands, expanding settlements, Washington’s long-standing rejection of a two-state solution which it now claims to champion, and the fact that Israel’s overwhelming military superiority means it does not face an existential threat from the region.

Echoing White House talking points and siding with one party in a complex historical dispute will only deepen the divisions between the West and the rest. Rather than invoke a novel right of existence for one protagonist, both the Middle East and Australian diplomacy would be better served by a more honest and even-handed approach to this most intractable of political disputes.

* Dr Scott Burchill is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University and a contributor to Australia and the Middle East: A Frontline Relationship (IB Tauris) edited by Fethi Mansouri, published last month.