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No Need for Recognition 

Menachem Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, vigorously objected to the notion that Israel’s right to exist “has to be sanctioned for political purposes by an intrinsically anti-Semitic, murderous Palestinian Arab terrorist organization? Have you lost your Jewish self-respect,” he asked. “Where is your Jewish memory?”  [1]  


When Begin became prime minster in 1997, an Englishman with a “perfectly pitched BBC announcer’s voice” enquired whether Begin looked forward to the day when the Palestinian Arabs would recognize Israel’s right to exist. Begin’s “jaw tightened,” but he comely responded, “Traditionally, there are four major criteria of statehood under international law. One – an effective and independent government. Two – an effective and independent control of the population. Three – a defined territory. And four – the capacity to freely engage in foreign relations. Israel is in possession of all four attributes and, hence, is a fully fledged sovereign state and a fully accredited member of the United Nations.”   [2] 

The Englishman then asked whether Begin would require the Palestinian Arab leadership to recognize Israel as a sine qua non for negotiations.  “Certainly not!” Begin affirmed. “Those so-called relevant organizations are gangs of murderers bent on destroying the State of Israel. We will never conduct talks about our own destruction.”  What if they were to recognize Israel’s existence, the fellow persisted, “would you then negotiate with them?” “No, sir!” “Why not?” “Because I don’t need Palestinian recognition for my right to exist.”  

Standing before the Knesset two hours later on his first day in office and after this caustic exchange, Begin began discussing Israel’s right to exist. “Our right to exist – have you ever heard of such a thing?” he declared. “Would it enter the mind of any Briton or Frenchman, Belgian or Dutchman, Hungarian or Bulgarian, Russian or American, to request for its people recognition of its right to exist?” Glaring at his audience and shaking his finger, he quieted every voice in the Knesset chamber. “Mr. Speaker: We were granted our right to exist by the God of our fathers at the glimmer of the dawn of human civilization four thousand years ago. Hence, the Jewish people have an historic, eternal and inalienable right to exist in this land, Eretz Yisrael, the land of our forefathers. We need nobody’s recognition in asserting this inalienable right. And for this inalienable right, which has been sanctified in Jewish blood from generation to generation, we have paid a price unexampled in the annals of nations.” Then he stood on his toes and in a thunderous voice proclaimed, “Mr. Speaker: From the Knesset of Israel, I say to the world, our very existence per se is our right to exist!” 

As the meeting with President Jimmy Carter in the White House came to a close three weeks later, the president handed the prime minister the formal communique of their meeting.  After Begin read the document he asked that the sentence, “The United States affirms Israel’s inherent right to exist” be removed.  Carter said, “It would be incompatible with my responsibilities as president of the United States were I to omit this commitment to your country, since this public pledge had been a request of every other former Israeli prime minister.”  He thanked the president and explained he wanted the sentence deleted “Because our Jewish state needs no American affirmation of our right to exist. Our Hebrew bible established that right millennia ago. Never, throughout the centuries, did we ever abandon or forfeit that right. Therefore, sir, we alone, the Jewish people – no one else – are responsible for our country’s right to exist.” [3]  

Abba Eban 

Abba Eban viewed the issue similarly: “Nobody does Israel any service by proclaiming its ‘right to exist.’  It is disturbing to find so many people right well-disposed to Israel giving currency to this contemptuous formulation. Israel’s right to exist, like that of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and 152 other states, is axiomatic and unreserved. Israel’s legitimacy is not suspended in midair awaiting acknowledgement by the royal house in Riyadh. Nor does a group such as the Palestine Liberation Organization have any juridical competence to accord recognition to states or withhold it.  [4]  

Former Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid agreed with Eban. “I don’t feel we need a declaration from the Palestinians that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” he told Charlie Rose on Bloomberg Television. “My father didn’t come to Haifa from the Budapest ghetto in order to get recognition from Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas),” Lapid said he sees the State of Israel as a place where Jews are able to define themselves, after 2,000 years in exile.” [5]  

An Opposing Israeli View  

As part of remarks observing the 96th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reiterated the significance of international recognition of Israel as a Jewish state to help bring peace to the Middle East. “There is no doubt that the international recognition of the right to a Jewish homeland and its historical significance is fundamental. Its refusal is the root of conflict” in the region. [6]  

Netanyahu urged the Arabs to “Recognize the Jewish state. As long as you refuse to do so, there will never be peace. Recognize our right to live here in our own sovereign state, our nation state – only then will peace be possible.” [7]  

In a speech to the Knesset on December 6, 2007 commemorating November 29, 1947, the day the UN voted to partition Palestine, Netanyahu, then the leader of the opposition, placed Palestinian Arab recognition of Israel in perspective. “Our existence,” he said, “does not depend on the willingness of the Palestinians to make peace with us. Our existence is secured by our right to live in this land and our capacity to defend that right.”  He had no illusions that “Our enemies do not want an Arab state next to Israel. They want an Arab state instead of Israel.” 

“The key to Israel’s existence,” he continued, “has always been rooted in strengthening Zionism and our ability to defend ourselves – and this remains the key to our existence and the key to forging a genuine peace with all our Arab neighbors. Only when some of them recognized Israel’s permanence and indestructibility did they reconcile themselves to making peace with us. That is why I was shocked to hear in the press that the Prime Minister, [Ehud Olmert] said: “If there will not be two states, Israel is finished.” Mr. Prime Minister: The State of Israel will never be finished! Our fate will be determined by us, and us alone!” 

For Israeli historian Jacob Talmon, the reason this issue consumes so much debate among Jews is that “deep down in the Jewish soul there is the conscious or unconscious tremendous Jewish anxiety to do away with that which has plagued their existence for two thousand years in the diaspora—the lack of simple, unreserved recognition of their right to exist as a right, and not on sufferance.” Wasn’t this “the essence of Zionism the deep longing to be a nation unto the nations in the family of nations?  Nothing could therefore be more galling and frustrating than the fact that Israel was the only State in the world to which its neighbors refused the very right to exist, and whose frontiers were hermetically closed even when they were not ablaze.” [8]  

Israeli journalist Dror Eydar claims the demand for recognizing a Jewish state is not intended for Israel, since she does not need recognition from Ramallah.  The demand is designed to impede the “PLO’s progressive tactic in which each territory it receives serves as the base for the next demand.”  And recognition is needed so that Israel’s existence is not just a meaningless slogan. It must be reflected in the way Israel is accepted in the Palestinian Arab media, schools and mosques. This recognition “is non-negotiable.” Unless it is granted, the status quo should remain. The alleged risk that without a diplomatic accord Israel’s position will deteriorate has been advanced for a hundred years and has been proven wrong. “Don’t try to scare us,” Eydar warns. “We have managed all right so far.” [9]  

Recognition is the only means to ensure that the conflict is actually over—that the settlement is not another disastrous fiasco, like Oslo adds historian David Hazony. It is not about psychological insecurity. Recognition has to be “categorical, overriding” without ‘Yes, but also right of return,’ or, ‘Yes, but also right to resistance.’ Anything short of that is just more posturing, more blood and tears.” [10]  



[1] Yehuda Avner, “Israel does not need Palestinian recognition,” The Jerusalem Post (June 14, 2006).  

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Abba Eban, “The Saudi Text,” The New York Times (November 18, 1981); Adi Schwartz, “A country in question,” Haaretz (January 22, 2007). 

[5]  Jonathan Lis, “We are now independent and make our own rules,” Haaretz (October 9, 2013); for others who share this view albeit it for other reasons, please see “J Street: Jewish state demand not realistic at present,” Haaretz (March 23, 2014); Chemi Shalev, “From hocus pocus to open sesame to recognition as Jewish state: It’s a kind of magic,” Haaretz (March 20, 2014); Shlomo Avineri, “Mahmoud Abbas holds the key to peace,” Haaretz (February 3, 2014); David Landau, “Not buying into Netanyahu’s ‘Jewish state,’” Haaretz  (March 10, 2014);  Ziad J. Asali, “Why Palestinians are puzzled by the ‘Jewish state’ demand,” Haaretz  (January 10, 2014); Peter Beinart, “Before Abbas recognizes the Jewish state, Israel must define it,” Haaretz (March 19, 2014); Peter Beinart, “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State,” The New York Times (July 8, 2020); Alex Grobman, “A Eureka moment: Peter Beinart and the One State Solution,” Israel National News (July 17, 2020); Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “A Liberal Zionist’s Move to the Left on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” The New Yorker (May 23, 2021; Ari Shavit, “Four reasons why Israel must be recognized as a Jewish state” Haaretz (February 13, 2014). 

[6] Tova Dvorin, “PM: PA Refusal of Jewish State is Root of Conflict,” Israel National News (November 3, 2013) Herb Keinon, “Netanyahu: Palestinian denial of Jews’ right to statehood is core of conflict,” The Jerusalem Post (November 3, 2013). 

[7] “Full text of Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan,” The Times of Israel (October 7, 2013).   

[8] Jacob Talmon, Israel Among the Nations (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson1970),171. 

[9] Dror Eydar, “The debate is about our right to exist,” Israel Hayom (March 16, 2014); for examples of incitement against Israel, please see Nan Jacques Zilberdik,  “Muslims will “purify” the Temple Mount and “liberate the land and the people ‎from the defilement of the criminal infidels” says PA preacher,” Palestinian Media Watch (September 23, 2021); Nan Jacques Zilberdik, “PA PM Shtayyeh repeats Abbas’ vow that last penny will be paid to terrorist prisoners,” Palestinian Media Watch (September 30, 2021); Itamar Marcus, “PA: The Holocaust was Europe repaying Jews for their “wickedness” Palestinian Media Watch ‎ (January 26, 2021); Review of UNRWA-Produced Study Materials in the Palestinian Territories November 2020 – January 2021 IMPACT-se  (February 2021);Daphne Burdman, “Hatred of the Jews as a Psychological Phenomenon in Palestinian Society,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs Jewish Political Studies Review 18:3-4 Fall 2006 (October 1, 2006); Alan Baker, “Changing Forms of Incitement to Terror and Violence: The Need for a New International Response, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (2012). 

[10] David Hazony, “Why Recognizing Israel as ‘Jewish State’ Is Key to Peace,” Forward (March 21, 2014)

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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.