It certainly is all about Israel’s right to exist
We negotiate. Perhaps even make some progress. Yet the Palestinians persist in their refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the state Israel. We won’t do it under any circumstances, declare the PLO chiefs, echoed by Hamas leaders, who are not involved in the talks. Certain "realists" believe that we should not get caught up in this matter of principle, that agreeing on borders and getting guarantees for Israel's security should suffice. They are wrong. For this has always been the essence of the conflict. Nothing will be resolved until this issue is resolved.
It is true that it took Israel a long time to recognize the "legitimate rights of the Palestinians" (see the Camp David Accords in 1978). But the Arab world as a whole, while lurching slowly toward recognition of Israel's existence, has never budged from its principled refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in the land of Israel. This sweeping, absolute, relentless rejection expressed itself over the years in three different, sometimes complementary, forms.
There was the initial hope of razing Israel to the ground. Conventional military armies were supposed to wipe off the map, in one fell swoop, this tiny state that the Jews had established in their homeland. After an attack by an Arab coalition failed on all fronts in 1948, its plans were foiled twice more - in 1967 and 1973.
Following those painful defeats, the Arab world left the field wide open to Palestinian terrorism: violence directed primarily against Jews in Israel and abroad. The goal of this second form of armed struggle, a return to which the leader of Hamas is calling for today, was to scare the Jews into packing their bags by burning them to death in bus bombings. This goal was not achieved. Israel managed to contain the terrorist warfare - the first state in the world to do so - at the price of a policy of repression that has tarnished its image internationally.
Image: that is the third war, the one of words, symbols and slogans, of ideological essentialism. Israel is portrayed as an accident of history, a denial of justice, the intolerable result of an original sin. What sin? Asserting the rights of a people that does not exist, the "Jewish people," with quotation marks that serve to denote irony. Removing them, a French intellectual explained to me, would imply recognition of Israel's right to be what it is.
In this battle, Israel finds itself in a difficult position, twice handicapped.
First of all, one has to confront the difficulty of many in the West to grasp the specific case represented by Jewish identity and the Israeli revolution. Ignorance of history and realities, coupled with the prevailing belief and a tendency, particularly in France, to regard Judaism only in a religious dimension – all these lead to hostile, crude or fallacious slogans (a theocratic, colonialist, imperialist state). Countering this vulgar propaganda is not easy, as it requires listening and teaching.
And there’s something more serious. A curious reversal of values has been in the works for half a century. The existentialist moral, based on Sartre's maxim that "existence precedes essence," would have to consider the Zionist enterprise favorably, perhaps even deem it exemplary. The extraordinary success of Israel’s democratic society, admittedly imperfect yet perfectible, is due to hard work, invention, sacrifice and supreme human achievements in all areas, from agriculture to culture, from science to industry. You would think that all of this would suffice to challenge the essentialist discourse of Israel's sworn enemies. Yet this whole enterprise means nothing, really nothing, in the face of the inalienable right of the Arabs to the land of Islam - a part of Dar el Islam.
But we are witnessing the opposite approach: the essentialist claims are magnified to the point of almost sacred proportions, even by those who would otherwise appreciate action and exemplary performance. Under such conditions, the ideological collision between Israel, representing existence, and the Palestinians, embodying the holy right, only works to enshrine the inferiority of the Israeli position.
Thus, the dialogue in the renewed talks is out of tune. Israel speaks the language of existentialism, while its interlocutors that of absolute birthright. A dialogue of the deaf never succeeds. It is therefore imperative to use the language imposed on us by our neighbors. That of the people's right.
David Ben Gurion, the founder of Israel, already understood that on the eve of proclaiming the country's independence. The text of the statement submitted to him could not have been more existentialist - thus he added a few words. To this pioneer and man of action, the State of Israel was founded, beyond all else, on the "natural and historic right of the Jewish people." That was the essence. It always is.
In any negotiation, when faced with Arab essentialism, that is the right that must be claimed and defended. Only those who speak the same language can really understand one another and achieve concrete results.
Emmanuel Halperin is an Israeli journalist working for the Knesset Channel, and a former presenter and foreign editor of the public television Channel 1.