One of the Quartet's conditions for dealing with a Hamas-led government of the Palestinian Authority is that it must "recognize Israel". Quite often, this demand that Hamas recognize Israel morphs into the requirement that Palestinians must "recognize Israel's right to exist". This sounds similar superficially, but really is a quite different demand altogether. And it's one that even the most amenable, "moderate" Palestinian is unlikely to comply with, let alone Hamas.
"Israel's right to exist" is code for a very specific demand. It isn't asking the Palestinians to recognize that the state of Israel exists and has the right to security within mutually agreed borders (which is essentially what the PLO has accepted). And it doesn't mean that the Palestinians must recognize an Israeli state where Jewish and non-Jewish citizens alike enjoy full rights of citizenship (as proposed in the partition resolution of 1947, in which "Jewish Palestine" was essentially a binational state). When Israel and its supporters demand that Palestinians must "recognize Israel's right to exist" they specifically mean that Palestinians must acknowledge Israel's "right" to exist as a Jewish state on the lands of former Mandate Palestine.
Why would that be a problem for Palestinians? Well, bear in mind that when Zionists established their first settlement in Palestine in 1882, the population of the land that they proposed to turn into a Jewish state was not in fact Jewish, but 95% Muslim and Christian Arab. Bear in mind too that throughout the twentieth century, Palestinians maintained one of the highest birthrates on earth. So even though the proponents of a Jewish state managed in mid-century to create a Jewish majority by expelling large numbers of Arabs, within a couple of generations they are – even without allowing the expelled population to return - once again facing the prospect of a Palestinian majority. So creating a Jewish state in Palestine comes down to an endless battle to gerrymander a Jewish majority where one does not naturally exist.
There are various ways you can do this. You can do it by killing off or expelling the majority population, till it is reduced to a manageable size, as in 1948. (And then you can even afford to give the vote to the remnant left behind, and proclaim yourself a democracy, because you have made sure that the natives are so reduced in number they can never democratically bring about any change in their status). Or you can do it by simply disenfranchising large numbers of the "undesirable" population in the land you claim for your Jewish state, as is the current situation for millions of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. These ugly means are not an unfortunate by-product of an Arab propensity for "terrorism" or "anti-semitism", forced upon unfortunate Zionists who would otherwise have preferred to peacefully coexist; they are absolutely intrinsic to creating a Jewish-majority state in Palestine. They are simply what you have to do in order to create a regime that favours one kind of people over another, in a land where the "other" people are the majority. Presumably, for Zionism, the end goal of creating a Jewish state in Palestine is of such import that its benefits outweigh the "collateral damage" that this inevitably involves for the Palestinian population.
When you demand that Palestinians acknowledge the "right" of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, you are asking them to say that they too think Zionism is worth all this "collateral damage". You are asking them to acknowledge that it was and is morally right to do all the things that were and are necessary for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, even though these necessary things include their own displacement, dispossession and disenfranchisement. You are asking them to internalize the fact that they have less right to live freely on their own ancestral lands where they have lived in unbroken continuity for millenia, than an immigrant to the Middle East who, by an accident of birth, happens to have been born into a "preferred" religion.
While every nation's tragedies are unique, the fact is that the Palestinians are not the only people who have had their modern national consciousness shaped by catastrophe. African-Americans have been shaped by slavery, Jewish Israelis by the Holocaust, and present-day South Africans by apartheid. But Palestinians are the only people that are told they must recognize the "rightness" of the catastrophe that befell them. And we demand this because, in the U.S., Zionism is the prism through which we look at the Arab-Israeli conflict. For us, Zionism is worthy and normative, and it is very difficult for us to acknowledge that for the people who have been – and inevitably had to be – on the receiving end of it, Zionism is cruel, and violent, and racist. But try to imagine what you would think if you heard someone demand that – in the interests of reconciliation with their former oppressors – African-Americans must acknowledge not only that the slave trade existed, but that it had a "right" to exist. Or that black south Africans must recognize the "right" of apartheid to exist. Or Jews, the Holocaust. Just by describing the scenario, we can see that we would be demanding something grotesque. But we take it for granted that the Palestinians must do it; and condemn them for anti-semitism when they refuse.
Usually when you hear the Israeli government say, "Of course we want to talk, but first….", you are simply hearing excuses from a government that has no intention of ever entering meaningful talks with the Palestinians, and can always come up with one more precondition to ensure that they don't have to. But the demand, "first they must recognize Israel's right to exist", is a precondition of a different kind altogether. It goes much deeper than a desire to avoid negotiating, and arises instead from a need to avoid recognizing the original sin at the heart of Zionism, which is that it could be realised only by destroying the people already in Palestine.
I wrote in an earlier post – Islamofascists – about the tendency of Zionists to present Zionism as merely a project to establish a national homeland for the Jewish people, while leaving out the rather important point that it is actually a project to create a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine, which already had an indigenous, non-Jewish population. For a long time, Israelis simply denied that there was a problem – maintaining a contradictory narrative that said that the Palestinians didn't exist, but also that (despite not existing) the Palestinians "left" in 1948 because they wanted to, not because they were expelled. But Israel's own New Historians put an end to those fictions, leaving Israelis with two choices. Either acknowledge the catastrophe that creating a Jewish state inflicted on the Palestinians, express regret for the suffering it caused, and discuss with them in good faith where both peoples can go from here. (And really, if you read the moderate kind of wording that the two sides were working on in Taba in relation to the refugee issue, you can see that nobody was asking Israel to rend its clothes or don sackcloth and ashes over this). Or deal with it by pretending you have nothing to regret, and beating the Palestinians as hard as you can in the hope that they will eventually tell you, "it's OK, it doesn't really matter"; which is what the "right to exist" precondition boils down to.
But the second option is not going to happen. No matter how much you hurt them, the Palestinians are never going to internalize the claim that their individual human rights and their collective national rights are inherently inferior to someone else's, merely because of their failure to have a Jewish mom. They are never going to tell you that it was all right to dispossess them, just because this will make you feel better about the nagging doubt over your own legitimacy that is eating away at you. Palestinians are willing to reach a negotiated settlement in which the two parties will agree on what terms they will coexist, then legally recognize the existence of each other and the right of each to live in security within the framework they have mutually agreed. That is the only kind of recognition that can realistically be demanded of the Palestinians. They are not going to become Zionists in order to save Israelis from having to confront the skeletons in their cupboard.
If Israelis feel such a crisis of national legitimacy that they need someone to hug them and tell them that what Zionism has done to the Palestinians doesn't really matter, they'd better find a therapist to do it, because the Palestinians won't. No Palestinian is ever going to tell them, "You're right, I am a lesser breed of human being, of course your rights are superior to mine" which, from a Palestinian perspective, is essentially what recognizing the "right" of Israel to exist as a Jewish state in Palestine entails.
Related links:Dennis Fox's Web Log: Two More Hard Questions.
Meron Benvenisti: The metamorphoses of legitimization.