Did the Palestinians Ever Really Recognize Israel?
According to reports in various news outlets, including Al Jazeera and The Times of Israel, the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the legislative body of the PLO and the official representative of the Palestinian people worldwide, has adopted a resolution freezing Palestinian recognition of Israel and conditioning it on Israel’s recognition of a state of Palestine.
The resolution was proposed by Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the PLO and head of the Palestinian Authority, at the PNC’s meeting in Ramallah — the first time that the PNC was convened in nine years.
This is not the first time that Abbas has threatened to revoke recognition of Israel. He periodically pulls this curious rabbit out of his meager bag of tricks when he feels the necessity to reaffirm his self-importance to his dwindling constituency, both at home and among his international supporters, mainly in Europe.
The question that comes to mind is whether the Palestinians ever genuinely recognized Israel and if so what relevance or weight this has in the general context of the peace process.
There have been some claims that Yasser Arafat, when pressed by the US leadership in 1988, prior to his first appearance before the UN General Assembly, did express a limited form of recognition of Israel. This is doubtful.
On December 8, 1988, after a two-day meeting in Stockholm with prominent American Jews, a PLO delegation led by Arafat said in a joint statement that the Palestinian parliament in exile had earlier “accepted the existence of Israel as a state in the region.”
At a news conference on that date, Arafat, basing his remarks on the Jewish-Arab states formula recognized in the 1947 UN partition resolution, stated, “We accept two states, the Palestine state and the Jewish state of Israel.”
As reported in The New York Times, Arafat would not say whether the Palestinian Council’s declaration constituted recognition of Israel. Some Palestinian hard-liners said it did not.
Perhaps the most direct and formal recognition appeared in the Rabin-Arafat Exchange of Letters of September 9, 1993, drafted during the secret Oslo talks that culminated in the first Oslo Accord, titled the “Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements” (commonly termed “Oslo 1”).
The exchange of letters contained solemn commitments by both leaders to pursue the peace process. Its validity is unlimited, as are the commitments therein.
In his letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Arafat stated, “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.”
In response, Rabin affirmed that “Israel recognizes the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people.”
In the above-mentioned Declaration of Principles of the same date, it was noted: “The Government of the State of Israel and the PLO team representing the Palestinian people, agree that it is time to put an end to decades of confrontation and conflict, [and] recognize their mutual legitimate and political rights.”
In the 1995 “Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip” (commonly termed “Oslo 2”) the parties mutually reaffirmed in the preamble, “Their determination to put an end to decades of confrontation and to live in peaceful coexistence, mutual dignity, and security, while recognizing their mutual legitimate and political rights.”
Additionally, they recognized “that the peace process and the new era that it has created, as well as the new relationship established between the two Parties as described above, are irreversible, and the determination of the two Parties to maintain, sustain and continue the peace process.”
The two sides also reaffirmed “their adherence to the mutual recognition and commitments expressed in the letters dated September 9, 1993, signed by and exchanged between the Prime Minister of Israel and the Chairman of the PLO.”
Clearly, Palestinian recognition of Israel emanating from the various agreements and declarations, however vaguely and indirectly expressed, constitutes a basic component of the very foundations of the Oslo peace process and the various agreements adopted between 1993-1999 within that process, all of which are still legally binding, despite having been violated.
To expressly revoke such recognition or suspend it and subject it to recognition by Israel of a Palestinian state, which does not exist, could be interpreted as undermining the basis of the peace process itself.
The issue of whether there will be a Palestinian state and whether Israel would recognize such a state is a central, agreed-upon subject for permanent status negotiations. This issue has not yet been addressed and Abbas cannot flippantly prejudge the issue.
By any accepted standard of treaty law or the law of contracts, Abbas’ action could be interpreted as a material violation by the Palestinian leadership, entitling Israel to regard the agreements as frustrated and impossible to implement. The significance of this could be to release Israel from its own obligations pursuant to the agreements, including inter alia the transfer of funds, granting VIP rights of passage to Palestinian leaders, security cooperation, transfer of goods, and more.
While it remains questionable whether Israel or anyone else should take Abbas’ threats seriously, the Israeli leadership might nevertheless find it appropriate to declare that it reserves its right in light of the PNC resolution to revoke recognition and the concomitant undermining of the agreements by Abbas, i.e. to view the agreements as void. Israel could then take whatever appropriate unilateral measures, security and economic, it considers appropriate to protect Israel’s interests.
Ambassador Alan Baker is director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center and the head of the Global Law Forum. He participated in the negotiation and drafting of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, as well as agreements and peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. He served as legal adviser and deputy director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Israel’s ambassador to Canada.