THE BLOG

Is Israel's Legitimacy Under Challenge?

Originally published in Hebrew in Ha'aretz.

Since the Goldstone report, Israel's political leaders and public have been agitated over what they claim to be a worldwide effort to "delegitimize" the Jewish state. A recent study by an Israeli policy institute warning of a looming global threat to the country's legitimacy was discussed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Cabinet, whose members concluded that this threat, believed to be motivated by anti-Semitism, is a greater danger to the country's existence than the nuclear threat from Iran.

Most Israelis, particularly the present government, have been blithely indifferent to repeated international condemnations of Israel's systematic theft of Palestinian territory on which it has been settling its own Jewish population in blatant violation of international law. Yet their reaction to what they see as an attack on the "legitimacy" of the State of Israel, a concept foreign to international law, seems to bring them to the edge of hysteria.

In fact, Israel's legitimacy within its 1967 borders has never been challenged by the international community. It is its behavior on territory beyond its own borders to which the international community - including every U.S. administration - has objected. To construe the condemnation of violations of international law as anti-Semitism is absurd.

It was not an anti-Semite seeking to delegitimize the Jewish state, but Theodore Meron, an internationally respected jurist and the legal advisor to Israel's Foreign Ministry, who following the war of 1967 conveyed the following legal opinion to Israel's Foreign Minister Abba Eban: "[C]ivilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention," to which Israel is a signatory. That Convention's ban on population transfer is "categorical and not conditional upon the motives for the transfer or its objectives. [The Convention's] purpose is to prevent settlement in occupied territory of citizens of the occupying state."

Existing states do not lose their legitimacy because their governments engage in illegal behavior. There is a presumption in international law of state continuity even if the central government collapses and the state becomes a failed state, as has been the case with Somalia. For all of the international condemnations of the behavior of Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the governments of Iran and North Korea, no one ever questioned those countries' legitimacy.

There is therefore something bizarre in Israel's insistence that condemnations of its violations of international law are not intended to challenge the illegality of its settlements and continuing occupation but the legitimacy of its very existence. If Israel keeps it up, that insistence may well turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps Israel's right wing government believes that by accusing the international community of seeking to undermine its existence it will distract attention from an increasingly untenable claim that Israel is a model democracy that also enshrines Jewish values. Both claims have been undermined by its settlements policy and its determination to maintain the status quo, bringing into question the very foundation of America's "special relationship" with Israel.

When a state's denial of the individual and national rights of a large part of its population becomes permanent - a permanence that has been the goal of Israel's settlement project from its very outset (and that many believe has been achieved) - that state ceases to be a democracy. When the reason for that double disenfranchisement is that population's ethnic and religious identity, the state is practicing a form of apartheid or racism. The democratic dispensation that Israel provides for its mostly Jewish citizenry cannot hide its changing (or changed) character. A political arrangement that limits democracy to a privileged class and keeps others behind military checkpoints, barbed-wire fences and separation walls does not define democracy. It defines its absence.

The claim that Israel is the incarnation and defender of Jewish values is contradicted by its treatment of an Arab population that has now lived for over two generations under Israel's military subjugation - treatment that Moshe Arens, a former Likud Defense and Foreign Minister, has warned is turning that population into a permanent underclass of "carriers of water and hewers of wood." It is entirely at odds with Biblical admonitions and Prophetic exhortations warning against injustices committed by the privileged and the powerful against the stranger and the powerless.

Israel's problem is not the Palestinian or Arab refusal to recognize it as a Jewish state. It is, rather, the increasing difficulty of Jews familiar with Jewish values to recognize it as a Jewish state. Rather than demanding that Palestinians declaim on Israel's democratic and Jewish identity, or conjuring non-existent threats to Israel's existence, Netanyahu and his government would be better advised adjusting Israel's policies toward a people that has lived under its unforgiving military occupation in a way that honors their country's democratic and Jewish beginnings. That would contribute far more to its "legitimacy" and to its long-range security than its present undemocratic and very un-Jewish course.

Henry Siegman, director of the U.S./Middle East Project, is a visiting research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.