Israel Doesn’t Have a “Right to Exist” — But Israelis and Palestinians Do
We’re often told that creating a single secular democratic state with equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians would violate Israel’s “right to exist.” But no nation-state has an inviolable right to exist — especially not an ethnostate based on exclusion and ethnic cleansing.
In 1991, Israeli and Palestinian representatives gathered in Madrid, Spain to restart a “peace process” they hoped, at least ostensibly, would lay the groundwork for a future “two-state solution.” Three decades later, as Israeli bombs rain down on Gaza, the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza seems further from realization than ever.
The idea of a two-state solution never made much sense. The West Bank and Gaza are geographically disconnected, and the Gaza Strip takes up all of 140.9 square miles. Under the terms of a future two-state deal, the residents of this tiny strip of land, densely packed with refugees from elsewhere in Israel/Palestine, wouldn’t be able to travel anywhere else in their country without venturing through the territory of a hostile military power that could deny such permission at any time. Does that sound like a meaningfully independent nation?
There are other obvious questions that arise. Would refugees whose families were ethnically cleansed from “Israel proper” be allowed back in Israel? Would this “independent Palestinian nation” be able to have its own army? And if militant groups dissatisfied with the accord launched attacks from within Future Independent Palestine, would Israeli bombers be on their way to enact collective punishment?
The mystical two-state solution also assumes that Future Independent Palestine would reclaim the territory that Israel has conquered since 1967 but not formally annexed. But this isn’t realistic either. During every moment of the “peace process,” Israel kept building Jewish-only settlements on the land it occupied. Many of these cities have been legally recognized, treated for all intents and purposes as part of Israel.
It’s theoretically possible that the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who live in these places might be removed as part of some future peace deal, but that’s extremely unlikely. The point of building these settlements in the first place was to create “facts on the ground” that would make it impossible to cede large parts of the West Bank to any future Palestinian entity.
So, realistically, a “Palestinian state” wouldn’t take up all of the West Bank and Gaza (territories that add up to just 22 percent of the total land mass of Israel/Palestine as a whole). It would be comprised of disconnected cantons even on the West Bank, pocketed with Israeli cities and crossed by Israeli roads.
If that’s what partition looks like, and you think indefinitely ruling over millions of Palestinians who are treated as subjects rather than citizens is unacceptable, only one option remains: the dreaded “one-state solution.” Give every human being in the territory citizenship and the right to vote in Israeli elections, let the refugees return, and dismantle every legal institution that creates distinctions between different ethnic or religious communities within the state.
But wait, Israel’s defenders say: Doesn’t Israel “have a right to exist”? Let’s take a closer look at that claim.
Unpacking Israel’s “Right to Exist”
“Israel has a right to exist” is a combination of words designed less to get across a single clear idea than to mash together everything from a secular democratic one-state solution with equal rights for everyone to lurid scenarios involving military conquest, atrocities, or even genocide. I’ll freely admit that, as a descendant of Jews who were forced to flee Ukraine due to antisemitism, I’m not immune to the emotional punch of this kind of rhetoric. But it’s important to stop and think more carefully about what it means.
Does it make sense to say of a nation-state — any nation-state — that it has a “right to exist”? Did Czechoslovakia have a right to exist? How about the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies? The Confederacy? Specific national configurations come and go all the time, and it’s far from obvious that their disappearance always involves a historic injustice.
Human beings have a right to exist, and to live flourishing lives. If anything can morally justify the existence of any nation-state, it’s surely that its existence — as opposed to its division into smaller nation-states or its absorption into a larger one — serves the ends of the human beings inside them. When one fails to do this for enough of those people for a long enough time, those national configurations sometimes end up being renegotiated (peacefully or otherwise), and the idea that, as a point of principle, this is always unjust is very strange.
In this case, though, none of that is even directly relevant. Israel is by far the most powerful military force in the region. None of its neighbors could seize a single square inch of Israeli territory against its will. Hamas is so poorly armed that Israel’s standard line is that the primary danger posed by rockets fired from Gaza is psychological trauma.
The real issue is clarified when you append the phrase “as a Jewish state” to “Israel has a right to exist.”
If “Jewish state” just means “state that happens to have a Jewish majority,” then it’s fine for Israel to exist “as a Jewish state,” just as it’s fine for the United States to be a “white Christian state” in the sense that it’s a state that happens to have a white Christian majority. But if an American friend told me they thought it was very important that America always have a white Christian majority, and that, for example, our immigration policies should guarantee that black and brown people never became a majority, I would probably call them a fascist.
And as bad as racist immigration policies are, they aren’t nearly as bad as incorporating territory into your state and constructing cities full of your own citizens while refusing to grant citizenship and voting rights to everyone else who lives there because they belong to the wrong ethnic group — which is exactly what people are defending when they say that “Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state.”
Israel as a nation-state isn’t going anywhere. But apartheid could fall there, as it fell in South Africa — and it damn well should.