Why doesn’t X recognise Israel?

There has been much discussion lately about the recent reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah. There’s much to be said on the matter, but the issue that irks me the most is the talk about Hamas’ (or the Palestinian) refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist. The issue should be whether one should recognise the validity of a state that discriminates against citizens who are not Jewish, and not whether Israel per se has a right to exist (which is of course not in dispute, despite much talk to the contrary). This might seem like a gratuitous distinction (between Israel per se and Israel as a Zionist state) but it is important in the context of the peace negotiations. I wrote the below about 3 years ago, I still think it’s relevant and I leave it pretty much unchanged.

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There is a certain mantra that “X refuses to recognise Israel” (X also “refuses to renounce violence” and “refuses to abide by previous agreements”, but that’s another matter). The US, the EU, Israel, several Arab states, amongst many other states, politicians, think tanks, and the like, have repeatedly and vehemently asked X to recognise Israel (there is even a site:www.recognizeisrael.com). X could be any number of Palestinian entities; let us take Hamas as a case study, noting along the way that one receives mixed signals from Hamas: some times they state that they will “never recognise Israel”, whereas other times, like last week [i.e. late July, 2008], it appears as though Hamas implicitly recognises Israel by stating that they support the establishment of a a fully sovereign Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

The ambiguity of Hamas’ position vis-a-vis the recognition of Israel stems from the fact that Israel has not fully defined its borders (there are other factors involved, like the argument that Hamas refuses to recognise Israel as a Jewish exclusivist state, but let us stick to the borders issue for the moment). It is a fact that is not mentioned nor discussed often, and it may surprise some, but Israel’s borders have not been clearly defined for at least four decades. In fact, in the 2006 Israeli parliamentary elections, one of Ehud Olmert’s (then acting Prime Minister after Sharon’s sudden illness) election platforms was that he would seek to set Israel’s permanent borders by 2010 (these borders, Olmert said, are to be along or close to Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank). This would be a unilateral move that has been criticised by many, including the Palestinians.

The two most ill-defined Israeli borders are, unsurprisingly, the fuzzy boundaries between Israel and Gaza and between Israel and the West Bank (there is also the northern border with Lebanon, but I won’t discuss it here). Let us begin with Gaza, from which Israel “disengaged” in 2005 (though in 2008 a UN report on the human rights situation in Palestine asserted that “it is clear that Israel remains the occupying Power [in Gaza]”). When part of the Gaza-Egypt border was bulldozed in January 2008, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that “It is an international border, it needs to be protected”. Presumably, since one side of Gaza (the border with Egypt) is an international border, the other side of Gaza (the border with Israel) is also an international border. However, though it is common to see the term “international border” used in regard to Gaza’s border with Egypt (and, before it was destroyed by Israeli military forces in late 2001, the Gaza airport was termed an “international airport”), it is much less common (it is almost an anomaly when it occurs) to see Israel’s border with Gaza termed an “international border.” Nevertheless, it appears that Israel now sees its border with Gaza as an international border, indeed it will be a mammoth effort on Israel’s part to convince anyone otherwise, especially since the Israeli disengagement from Gaza (it will also be a mammoth effort to find an admission of this in print; perhaps it is seen as a truism, perhaps it is mere pedantry on my part, or perhaps it is deliberate obfuscation).

The Israeli border with the West Bank is a much more complicated issue (I can only discuss it briefly here). In fact, technically it is not a border at all, but a temorary cease-fire line, the so-called green line that was the armistice line estabslihed in 1949 after the 1948 war between Israel and its neighbouring Arab states. In the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel conquered the West Bank, amongst other terrirtories, the oft-quoted UN Security Council Resolution 242 called for Israel to withdraw back to the green line (though 242 did not explicitly refer to the green line, saying only that Israel should withdraw “its armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict”). Until a couple of years ago, when the construction of the separation barrier began and thus allowed the Israeli government to unilaterally define its borders, Israel did not seek to define its border with the West Bank. This is so for a variety of reasons, the most pertinent one is the serious water shortage that would afflict Israel if they define their borders along the green line. Withdrawing to the green line would mean that Israel would lose control of the large West Bank mountain aquifers that serve the Palestinians, Israel and the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, thus leaving it to the Palestinians to decide how much water to allow Israel (Jonathan Cook observes that, were Israel to withdraw to the green line and a Palestinian state established, however “impoverished the new sovereign Palestinian state [will be], it would lose all legitimacy in the eyes of its own population were it to sell more than a trickle of water to the Israelis.”) This is of course an undesirable situation for the Israeli government, and for the region as a whole, for such a severe water shortage will most likely lead to an armed conflict over the control of the region’s water resources.

So why doesn’t X recognise Israel? The prior question should be why doesn’t Israel fully define all its borders so as to allow other states to recognise an Israel with specific and permanent borders. These borders should not be set unilaterally, as Israel is attempting to do now, because, as it stands now, that would heavily bias the borders towards Israel and its needs, leaving the remnants to whatever entity is labelled a Palestinian state and thus perpetuating the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

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