Is it fair for the West to demand that the Palestinian government recognize Israel’s right to exist? In an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor of February 2, John V. Whitbeck wrote:
There is an enormous difference between “recognizing Israel’s existence” and “recognizing Israel’s right to exist.” From a Palestinian perspective, the difference is in the same league as the difference between asking a Jew to acknowledge that the Holocaust happened and asking him to concede that the Holocaust was morally justified. For Palestinians to acknowledge the occurrence of the Nakba—the expulsion of the great majority of Palestinians from their homeland between 1947 and 1949—is one thing. For them to publicly concede that it was “right” for the Nakba to have happened would be something else entirely. For the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, the Holocaust and the Nakba, respectively, represent catastrophes and injustices on an unimaginable scale that can neither be forgotten nor forgiven.
Whitbeck’s parallelism is disgusting and morally obtuse to the point where one wonders what the CSM editors could have been thinking when they published it. Here are two small differences between these two “injustices.” First, the Palestinians (and their fellow Arabs) started the Nakba by attacking the Jews. The Jews did not start the Holocaust by attacking the Nazis. Second, the victims of the Holocaust were slaughtered, while the victims of the Nakba lost their homes and land. For their part, the Jews had, over the centuries, lost their homes and land many times—events which paled in comparison to the Holocaust.
This bit of ugliness aside, what should the Arabs recognize? Merely that Israel exists? The Serbs recognized that Bosnia existed. That was precisely what they set out to change. Likewise with Saddam Hussein and Kuwait or the Hutus and the Tutsis or, for that matter, the Nazis and the Jews. The Arabs recognize that Israel exists every time they denounce, defame, boycott, or launch rockets against it. This recognition does not bring peace one millimeter closer.
But can the Arabs be expected to recognize Israel’s right to exist? The answer was supplied to me by a young Egyptian writer I know. “The creation of Israel was an injustice,” he said, “but Israel has earned the right to exist.” It has earned this right, he explained, not by its military victories over the Arabs, but by having built a vibrant society that had sunk deep roots.
This struck me as exactly right. Arabs cannot be expected to acknowledge that Israel’s birth was just. But they can be asked to agree that Israel’s destruction now would be a greater injustice. This—and not acknowledgment of the simple fact of Israel’s existence—is the key to resolving the conflict.