Why do homo sapiens recognize Israel’s right to exist?

Saree Makdisi’s recent “Outside the Tent” column “In the war of words, The Times is Israel’s ally” raises interesting questions regarding the international community’s insistence that Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist. Recognition, says Makdisi, takes place simultaneously between sovereign states, not as a condition for attaining sovereignty. Moreover, countries merely recognize each other’s polities, while Palestinians are unfairly requested to recognize Israel’s “right to exist"—which is a much deeper commitment, accepting not merely a political reality, but also an ideological paradigm that morally justifies that reality.

These demands are indeed unique, but they adequately reflect the unique, unprecedented nature of the Middle East conflict. Never in the history of nations has a society defined itself on the ruins of a neighboring democracy and never has such society sought sovereignty and international legitimacy while admitting its intent. Makdisi, for example, is not a bit embarrassed to argue for a Palestinian state on Israel’s tomb while quoting from Orwell on language and morality.

The unique demand to recognize Israel’s “right”, not merely its “existence,” reflects the general understanding among students of history that the core of the conflict and its resulting sufferings lies not in resource or border disputes, but in a deep ideological resistance by Palestinian Arabs to accommodate any form of a Jewish homeland in any part of Palestine since the end of World War I, accompanied by a persistent denial of any historical connection between the Jewish people and their national birthplace. For the record, Jews have accepted Palestinian Arabs as equally indigenous to the land and equally entitled to independent sovereignty, while Palestinian Arabs, and their Arab neighbors, have rejected any two-state solution offered since the 1920’s, including the Peel Commission recommendation of 1937, the United Nations’ 1947 decision, and the Camp David offer in 2000.

Noting that the first and second rejections took place prior to the emergence of the refugee problem, and that the territories rejected in those cases were vastly broader than the West Bank and Gaza, it is only reasonable to assume that a deeper, ideological resistance propels Arab hostility toward Israel, a resistance that transcends borders or refugee problems.

It is therefore perfectly reasonable that the international community verifies, prior to giving its blessing, whether this deeper resistance still stands in the way of future attempts to reach a lasting peace. The failure of the Oslo process was costly to all sides.

Makdisi is right; Israel’s demand that its “right to exist” be recognized has become the norm of civilized discourse. However, this demand reflects a genuine universal anxiety, not about Israel’s existence but about its neighbors’ readiness to work toward a lasting conciliatory peace. Absent such readiness, formal recognitions of existence are mere invitations to a bloodier conflict.

Judea Pearl, a professor of computer science at UCLA, writes frequently about the Middle East and East-West relations.