Noam Chomsky: I don’t think that the notion of legitimacy of a state means very much. Is the United States a legitimate state? It’s based on genocide; it conquered half of Mexico. What makes it legitimate? The way the international system is set up, states have certain rights; that has nothing to do with their legitimacy. Every state you can think of is based on violence, repression, expulsion, and all sorts of crimes. And the state system itself has no inherent legitimacy. It’s just an institutional form that developed and that was imposed with plenty of violence. The question of legitimacy just doesn’t arise. There is an international order in which it is essentially agreed that states have certain rights, but that provides them with no legitimacy, Israel or anyone else.
IOA Editor: An illuminating exchange between Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar on the important question of the legitimacy of the state, and how it applies to Israel and other nation states. Presented in the context of the current wave of accusations that critics of the Israeli occupation, and of Israel’s systematic and ongoing violations of international law, are “delegitimizers” — a recently coined term created by Israeli propaganda experts as part of an effort to, in their words, “delegitimize the delegitimizers.”
An excerpt from Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy. Dialogues on Terror, Democracy, War, and Justice, edited by Stephen R. Shalom (expanded edition), Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2009, pp. 143-148. (Footnotes have been removed from the excerpt.)
The book of extended conversations between these two leading progressive political analysts is available from the publisher at:
Shalom: There has been much debate regarding the legitimacy of the Israeli state. To what extent is Israel a legitimate, or an illegitimate, state?
Chomsky: I don’t think that the notion of legitimacy of a state means very much. Is the United States a legitimate state? It’s based on genocide; it conquered half of Mexico. What makes it legitimate? The way the international system is set up, states have certain rights; that has nothing to do with their legitimacy. Every state you can think of is based on violence, repression, expulsion, and all sorts of crimes. And the state system itself has no inherent legitimacy. It’s just an institutional form that developed and that was imposed with plenty of violence. The question of legitimacy just doesn’t arise. There is an international order in which it is essentially agreed that states have certain rights, but that provides them with no legitimacy, Israel or anyone else.
Achcar: We could put the question in another way. If one tries to define the origins of the Israeli state, the formula that comes to mind is the title of a famous piece by Maxime Rodinson, Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? It points to a fact that is built into the history of the state; of course, one could say the same of many states. (Chomsky: Most.) But then you have the factor of time: Israel is a very recent colonial-settler state, and it is based on the expulsion of the original inhabitants of Palestine, not on genocide like the United States. Ironically, states based on genocide are in a more comfortable position. Not from the moral point of view, of course, but from the political point of view, in terms of the existence of a challenge to their legitimacy. In the case of expulsion, those expelled continue to challenge the state’s legitimacy; in the case of genocide, those who might be challengers have been wiped out. And to be sure, all states are based on violence, but cases like the apartheid state in South Africa, or Algeria at the time of French domination, cannot be put in the same category as, let’s say, states that are not or are no longer contested in their legitimacy. So the fact is that Israel is confronted with vehement questioning of its legitimacy, of its “right to exist”: Most Arabs are ready to recognize it de facto, as a fact, but not de jure, by right.
Chomsky: The notion of “right to exist” appears to have been invented by advocates of U.S.-Israeli rejectionism. And it’s interesting the way it has spread. This notion doesn’t exist in international law. No state has a right to exist. So Mexicans don’t accept the right of the United States to exist, sitting on half of Mexico. They recognize the United States, they recognize the right of the United States to live in peace and security within recognized borders, but they don’t recognize the right of the United States to exist, nor should they. Nor do the Hopi Indians. They recognize the United States, but not its right to exist. I have never seen a careful study, but as far as I can tell, the notion of “right to exist” was developed in the 1970s, at the point where the major Arab states, with the tacit support of the PLO , accepted that Israel had a “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries”—the wording of UN Security Council Resolution 242 adopted in the aftermath of the June 1967 war, incorporated in a UN Security Council resolution vetoed by the United States in January 1976. In order to raise the barriers, to prevent negotiation and settlement from proceeding, U.S. and Israeli propaganda elevated the demand, from a right that holds for all states—“to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries”—to the “right to exist.” So the new barrier was that unless Palestinians accepted the right of Israel to exist—that is, the legitimacy of their dispossession and expulsion—then they couldn’t be accepted as negotiating partners. As far as I can tell, that was just a way to prevent negotiations, at a time when the United States and Israel were becoming almost totally isolated internationally in their refusal to proceed with implementing a very broad international consensus on a two-state settlement. I don’t think we should accept that notion; that’s a propaganda notion. No state has a right to exist, and no one has any reason to accept the right to exist. States are what they are. None of them have any inherent legitimacy. You’re right, they differ; they have many different dimensions. So apartheid South Africa was illegitimate in a particular ugly sense. Is it legitimate now? Apartheid is over, but for the same 80 percent of the Black population, maybe the situation is worse than it was before, after the neoliberal measures were instituted in South Africa. Is that a legitimate state?
You’re quite right that Israel is close to unique in one sense—namely that it was established after the contemporary international order was formed in 1945. Israel became a state in 1948, like India and Pakistan, so it’s one of those few states that was established after the current international order was established. That imposes an extra problematic element—the same with India. Why should India be sitting on Kashmir, for example? Kashmiris don’t want it; it was because the Maharaja happened to make that decision against the will of the population, and they’re holding it by violence. They won’t allow a referendum, which the United Nations demanded. The Indian special forces, the Rashtriya Rifles, carry out terrible atrocities. They faked the elections, which led to a lot of violence that still goes on. There’s an element of illegitimacy.
Achcar: I think there are different levels that are being mixed here. Of course, no state on earth is a state where you have social equality. That’s entirely obvious. So what you said about South Africa could apply to the United States or any other state. (Chomsky: But there are extremes.) There are extremes, of course, but we are speaking here of a different level. You have states that, for the overwhelming majority of their population, are considered to be their state, and you don’t have a problem. But then you have situations that are part of the colonial legacy, created by force and rejected by majorities of the populations concerned. Kashmir, Kurdistan, and the rest are situations that are illegitimate in that sense, where the majority concerned do not consider themselves represented in the existing state structure.
Chomsky: We can go on. Take Turkey, after the expulsion of Greeks. The Greeks don’t accept that, even to this day. There’s no legitimacy to it; it’s just been settled by various arrangements of force. Israel is unusual in that it was established a little later than the others, but it’s very similar in character. And the United States is maybe the most extreme example. Almost the entire population was either exterminated or driven out of their lands. And then it’s sitting on half of another country. The only reason it didn’t conquer Canada was because the British deterrent was too strong. I simply don’t think that the question of legitimacy of a state can seriously be raised. They’re all illegitimate.
Achcar: Yes, but once again, it depends on what you mean by that. In the case of Israel, you have a situation where the overwhelming majority—more than 80 percent—of the original Arab Palestinian population of that territory had been expelled in 1948.
Chomsky: What would the original population of the current United States think?
Achcar: I said from the start that states based on effective genocide are, in a way, in a more comfortable situation, because they don’t have any massive population contesting their existence or legitimacy. In the case of the Israeli state, on the other hand, you have a population that is at least as numerous as the settler-dominant one, and is claiming a right to the same territory, which it sees as having been usurped. As long as there is no solution that is acceptable to this population, you have a problem with legitimacy. If this population agrees that the state, although stemming from historical injustice and oppression, should nevertheless be accepted as an established fact, in the context of some settlement, then the problem is solved. But, as long as you don’t have that, you have a problem of legitimacy—in the very formal democratic sense of the term.
Chomsky: As long as something is contested, it’s contested, I agree. So Sri Lanka is seriously contested. India is seriously contested. Alsace-Lorraine is no longer contested because both sides recognize that the next time they contest it, they’ll wipe out the world. In the case of Israel, it’s mostly accepted even by the Palestinians. But until it’s totally accepted, yes, it’ll be contested. That’s a different dimension than the question of legitimacy. The fact that some people have given up doesn’t make it legitimate.
Achcar: No. Legitimacy is based on consent. Legitimacy is the consent of the majority. And the consent of the majority defines legitimacy, at least in political philosophy and democratic constitutional law. And a state is legitimate when it is based on the consent of the majority of its rightful population. Now, again, the problem of the Israeli state is that the bulk of the Palestinian population has been expelled and deprived of rights since 1948. So if we consider that these people have rights on the territory from which they have been expelled, then one cannot say that the Israeli state is based on the consent of the majority of its rightful population.
Chomsky: Let’s drop the word “legitimacy.” “Legitimacy” has quite a different meaning in international affairs. You should just say, straight out, that the original indigenous population of the land on which Israel was established does not accept the legitimacy of their expulsion. That’s true. But that has nothing to do with whether the state is legitimate. You could say the same about many other states. People may accept it, but they don’t accept its legitimacy. I don’t know what would happen if you took a poll in Alsace-Lorraine, for example, about whether people would accept the legitimacy of the solution. They’d say, okay, that’s the way it worked out. They may think it’s legitimate; they may not. If you went to a Native American Hopi reservation, they certainly wouldn’t regard the United States as legitimate, but they accept it.
Achcar: If even they accept it, then it is legitimate.
Chomsky: Fine. But insofar as the Palestinians have any organized voice, they accepted Israel a long time ago. They backed the 1976 UN resolution (vetoed by the United States) that called for a two-state settlement. In 1988, the Palestinian National Council formally accepted such a settlement. But I don’t think that confers any legitimacy on Israel, any more than any other arrangement confers legitimacy on a state. But as far as acceptance is concerned, yes, they accepted it, though of course there are things that are contested, like the right of return, or the borders and so on.
Take the negotiations at Taba, for example, in January 2001. They didn’t reach an agreement, but they came very close. As a matter of fact, at the final press conference the negotiators said, we have never been this close to an agreement, and if we could continue a little longer, we’d probably reach an agreement. That agreement, had it been reached, would have amounted to acceptance by the only organized administrative structure within the Palestinian world. Would that have made Israel legitimate? No. Any more than the United States, or France, or India, or Sri Lanka—go through the list—is legitimate.
Achcar: I think we cannot apply double standards here. We cannot blame European governments, the U.S. government, and others for disregarding the opinion of their populations on the issue of the Iraq war, and approve as the authoritative voice of the Palestinian people the decision by what is the equivalent of a government of the Palestinians, disregarding the opinion of the people.
Chomsky: So you’re now saying the Palestinian Authority is illegitimate?
Achcar: No, what I’m saying is that no agreement could be considered legitimate if it is not based on consultation with the Palestinian population by some kind of referendum. It needs to be approved by the majority of the oppressed Palestinian population