As someone who is interested in the Israeli-Palestinian question one phrase that comes up in the pro-Israeli position is the insistence that the Palestinians recognise '"Israel's right to exist". (In fact this is one of the key conditions that the so-called honest broker, the USA insisted upon, on brokering the Oslo accords, without insisting on a quid-pro-quo from Israel, that is insisting on Palestines right to exist. This was especially important given Golda Meirs assertion that the Palestinian people didn't exist; and how can a people who don't exist have title to land? So the USA should have insisted on this quid pro quo - that it didn't do so showed it dishonesty as a so-called 'honest broker' - a term still current today(!)).

What should be understood by this assertion?

After all, I don't ask a pear of its right to exist. It simply exists. Moreover I can't ask the pear to recognise my right to exist. Whereas, of course, the reciprocal question can be asked of Israel - that is the right of the Palestinian people to exist. After all, Golda Meir infamously said:

When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? […] It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.

A right that can be demanded where the reciprocal right cannot be strikes me as a very curious form of right. It appears then less of a right and merely a demand and a demand backed up by force - the military might of one of the strongest militarised states in the Middle East backed up by the most militarised state on this planet - the United States (and that by a very large margin). Some right.

Moreover, when we look at the former Soviet Union - we see that the peoples of the Soviet Union are still there - they haven't gone anywhere. They still speak Russian (and other languages). They still practice their religion (apparently there was a resurgence after the fall of the Soviet Union). The buildings are all there too - Red Square and so on.

So what ought to be understood by "Israel's right to exist?". Is its particular political configuration? But then again, the United Kingdom is recognisably still the same state it was a thousand years ago despite many political changes - including its expansion into an empire in the 17th century and then its breakup in the 20th century (and apparently if the SNP has its way - the further break up of a four hundred year union!).

Is there perhaps a legal dimension? But according to Wikipedia there is no such right under International Law. So it seems this then turns on what is meant by such a right - and hence my question: what is meant by such a right?

Answers that point to the serious literature will be appreciated.

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    This would be better asked at the Politics site. Aug 9, 2019 at 12:31
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    the idea is just whether the state (a collection of people behaving and organizing themselves in such and such a way) has a moral right (entitlement to have or do something) to exist. you seem to say the claim is senseless because of Israel's treatment of Palestinian people. i think that is too strong from any nationalist, even if we accept that we can forfeit obligations
    – user38026
    Aug 9, 2019 at 12:41
  • anyway, i don't think there's any confusion of language there. whatever you think of who should have rights
    – user38026
    Aug 9, 2019 at 12:58
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    Albeit biased as to my identity, I would like to offer you to not take the phrase as it is stated in the common, popularized view - but rather read the history of the Israel-Arab conflict (I include "Arab" more generally because this conflict does not contain merely the Plalestine people, but includes other nations from the area as well). I wouldn't think it to be appropriate for anyone to approach this debate politically (or so philosophically) before approaching its historical background. Aug 9, 2019 at 13:59
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    Could OP's question possibly be rephrased as: What does it mean for a state to have a “right to exist”? If not, then I would agree it would be better asked on Politics Aug 9, 2019 at 15:11

7 Answers 7


It's referring to the state, not the land or the people, so your example of a pear isn't really applicable. The preamble of the 1988 charter of Hamas (aka "the Islamic Resistance Movement") declares that "Islam will obliterate Israel." Hamas also officially promotes "the liberation of Palestine" and the raising of "the banner of Islam over every inch of Palestine" (i.e., Gaza, the West Bank, and the borders of Israel proper) from Israel. Hamas is therefore seen as not recognizing Israel's right to exist.

  • The example of a pear is to emphasise the ontological dimension of the notion of existence. Aug 9, 2019 at 10:54
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    @MoziburUllah The pear exists. The point is that the pear may also wish to continue to exist in its current coherent form rather than being, say, picked and eaten.
    – ceejayoz
    Aug 9, 2019 at 15:43
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    @ceejayoz has the right idea. Hamas demands, officially and as a matter of policy, that the pear be destroyed, and Israel requires that Hamas recognize that the pear be allowed to continue to exist in its "coherent form". (I like that phrase.) And this, I think, refers not to specifics such as particular plots of land, but simply the preservation of what it generally is at-present.
    – David
    Aug 9, 2019 at 17:36
  • @ceejayoz: Pears don't have wishes. Aug 14, 2019 at 6:43
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    @MoziburUllah I don't think you're commenting in good faith here. It's quite obvious pears don't have wishes, but you used the pear analogy in your original post. Pears don't have citizens, either.
    – ceejayoz
    Aug 14, 2019 at 13:31

The reason Israel demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel's so-called "right to exist" is that in so doing, they would officially relinquish any and all claims they have on the land they owned before Israel was founded and from which they were evicted by the Israelis in 1948.

They naturally refuse to relinquish those claims because to do so means they accept Israel's conquest of what was once their land as legitimate, and in that moment they become people without any claim to the land. It means admitting complete defeat.

No one has yet devised some method of getting them to do so.

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    Highly biased revisionist history. Israel's history and 1948 events are much more convoluted. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – atk
    Aug 9, 2019 at 5:17
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    It is still true that recognition of Israel's right to exist within its 1948 boundaries renders the Palestinian's claims to their land null and void. Do you have a solution to this? Aug 9, 2019 at 5:54
  • i think this is a fair answer, that the right to exist is in effect about a right to organize and control land and so not a confusion of language. whether or not israel, or in deed any state, should have it
    – user38026
    Aug 9, 2019 at 12:53
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    Fallacy of the excluded middle. Recognizing Israels right to exist would relinquish some but not all Palestinian claims. In international politics, this is known as the "two state" solution to the conflict, and it's for instance the official EU policy.
    – MSalters
    Aug 9, 2019 at 13:20
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    @MSalters officially, the "two states" solution is also the policy of the US, of Israel and of the Palestinian Authority. Even if recently the efforts and rhetorics by people in power in those places fail to convince that they would be sincerely pursuing this aim.
    – Evargalo
    Aug 9, 2019 at 14:01

Wikipedia provides a brief history of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181:

Following World War II and the establishment of the United Nations, the General Assembly resolved that a Special Committee be created "to prepare for consideration at the next regular session of the Assembly a report on the question of Palestine." It would consist of the representatives of Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, Iran, Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay and Yugoslavia. In the final report of September 3, 1947, seven members of the Committee in Chapter VI "expressed themselves, by recorded vote, in favour of the Plan of Partition with Economic Union" (reproduced in the Report). The Plan proposed "an independent Arab State, an independent Jewish State, and the City of Jerusalem". On November 29, 1947, the General Assembly recommended the adoption and implementation of a Plan of Partition with Economic Union, General Assembly Resolution 181, a slightly modified version of that proposed by the majority in the Report of September 3, 1947, 33 votes in favor, 13 against, and 10 abstentions. The vote itself, which required a two-third majority, was a dramatic affair. It led to celebrations in the streets of Jewish cities, but was rejected by the Arab Palestinians and the Arab League.

This may be viewed as the basis for the right of Israel to exist.

There was no Palestinian state prior to this resolution but a British Mandate according to Wikipedia:

The United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine was a proposal by the United Nations, which recommended a partition of Mandatory Palestine at the end of the British Mandate.

Since the Arab League rejected Resolution 181 and this history of a prior British Mandate, this may be viewed as a justification for rejecting the existence of a prior Palestinian state.

That may offer a modern political justification for Israel's "right to exist".

This becomes more interesting if one accepts a philosophical/theological perspective of interest to Judaism, Christianity and perhaps even Islam that Israel has a divine right, guaranteed by miraculous protection, to exist as a people.

Also if one believes that Yahweh (God or Allah) promised this land to them, as long as they were obedient, members of these religions who reject this state may involve themselves in rejecting the divine will of their God. Of course, it may also be divine will that the Jewish people be punished for disobedience and temporarily lose this land. Regardless, members of these religions need to tread carefully on the existence of Israel.

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, July 31). Israel and the United Nations. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:47, August 8, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Israel_and_the_United_Nations&oldid=908735611

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, July 25). United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:55, August 8, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=United_Nations_Partition_Plan_for_Palestine&oldid=907826765

  • I don't quite see how the first extract serves as a basis of a 'right to exist' - it doe's not even mention the phrase. Aug 9, 2019 at 10:52
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    @MoziburUllah the vote required two third majority (66%) : 46 votes of which 33 are in favor (72%), and 13 are against (28%) ... I think this is the reason.
    – SmootQ
    Aug 9, 2019 at 11:31
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    @SmootQ: That's of no relevance to the question I'm asking: which is about the 'right of existence' as it relates to the customary law of nations or international law or political philosophy. Aug 9, 2019 at 11:33
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    @MoziburUllah I do not claim to understand these political subjects, it was just an uneducated guess based on the citation ... although I personally think that Israel had no right in the land (I mean in the ethical sense), and now, after more than 70 years, the situation is very complicated since we are 2 generations away.
    – SmootQ
    Aug 9, 2019 at 11:40
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    @MoziburUllah As SmootQ notes, General Assembly Resolution 181 gives Israel the right to be there. Without it they would not be there because they would not have the right. Aug 9, 2019 at 12:23

Sovereignty over its land

I believe that the explanation is very simple, it's about recognizing Israel-the-state claim to Israel-the-land. That claim is disputed by some countries and groups, however, that claim is essentially equivalent to whether Israel-the-state has the right to exist - unlike other land claims in various border disputes, here the entirety of its land is contested.

  • It's not really addressing the philosophical dimension of the term 'right' means here as well of 'existence'. Aug 9, 2019 at 11:22
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    @MoziburUllah This answer addresses what people may mean when they say the phrase, which is what you asked for. If you want a linguistic discussion about what the word "right" means, I think there is a separate stack site for that where you might get better answers. If you want an interpretation about what the people who use the phrase mean by it when they use the phrase, you might have to ask the people who use the phrase and who assert its truth. If the answers here are not what you're looking for, then maybe the question needs to be refined. +1 to this answer
    – Aaron
    Aug 9, 2019 at 16:40

There seems to be three questions here.

  1. Does specifically Israel have a right to exist? That's a question for politics, not philosophy. Because it's a practical question, at least supposing no group of people can forfeit their moral right to their state.
  2. Do any states have a right to exist? Most anarchists would say no.
  3. Is it an abuse of language to say any state has a right to exist? I don't see why, at all. Is the phrase doctors have no right to exist (politicians, capitalists, executioners) a misuse of language? No, it's just a means to suggest that they have the right to practice (to own capital etc.), for there to be practicing doctors.

One could argue that states are not just composed of groups of people and their practices, but (perhaps even holy) land. But I don't see any need at all to suppose that this unreasonably complicates the phrase, rather than the ethical question.


Nations are not naturally occurring entities, like pears. They're established by convention and agreement among the peoples of the world.

As you say, a pear "just exists", although people may reasonably disagree over whether any particular object actually is a pear. But nations don't exist on their own, we have criteria for justifying whether a group of people living in a particular geographic location should be considered a nation.

Questioning a nation's "right to exist" is questioning whether they meet the aforementioned criteria.

There's also a second way to view this. "Existence" for a nation is like "life" for a person (or other living being). A Palestinian saying that Israel has no right to exist is like a judge or jury declaring that a criminal should be put to death, i.e. they have no right to live. They're stating that they believe the nation should be obliterated, and the nation isn't worthy of any right that would prohibit this.


The right to exist refers to a People's (capital P) right to exist, as outlined in Rousseau's social contract:


Take a look at pages 6 and 7.

A group of people come together to:

Find a form of association that will bring the whole common force to bear on defending and protecting each associate’s person and goods, doing this in such a way that each of them, while uniting himself with all, still obeys only himself and remains as free as before.’

Also known as a People. Peoples are easily distinguishable from one another, usually by shared languages, customs and rules. Many Peoples are capable of co-existing peacefully, even sharing the same space.

In this context, the right to exist refers to the right of a People to enjoy their property, follow their own laws and pursue happiness according to their own beliefs.

This is not possible for Islamic Peoples until they reform: Any non-muslims (kafir) are required to be treated as second class citizens at best. To quote the Koran (not that I consider it serious literature):

9:29 Make war on those who have received the Scriptures [Jews and Christians] but do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day. They do not forbid what Allah and His Messenger have forbidden. The Christians and Jews do not follow the religion of truth until they submit and pay the poll tax [jizya], and they are humiliated.

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