With an unfailing eye for the trifling and insignificant, I couldn’t miss the photo in the news magazine showing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas grinning at his Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh. After all, these names are familiar ones in every household — at least somewhere. And their faces are as familiar as the faces of minor league hockey players. So it was not surprising that I spotted them.
What these two celebrities were so evidently happy about (as the photo caption declared) was their attempt to form a government alliance that would include Fatah and Hamas elements. But then the jarring note: the U.S. and Israel will not deal with the new government unless it recognizes Israel, and renounces violence.
Wow! I’ll admit I didn’t know that Palestine had a government, although the concept hadn’t crossed my mind. I checked the Palestine web site, and no mention was made there of a government. But Google informed me that Arafat declared Palestinian independence in 1988, and was the country’s first president, serving from 1994 until 2004. But I don’t recall ever hearing him described as "president," but, rather, as "chairman." The difference seems to be that dependencies may have chairmen, while only sovereign states have presidents. In American media, at least, President Arafat was almost always referred to as Chairman Arafat.
But what is this business of the U.S. and Israel giving the new coalition government the cold shoulder unless it "recognizes" Israel? (There is that further stipulation that it renounce violence, but that’s obviously just boilerplate. No government renounces violence; it’s what governments do best. And has Israel renounced violence? So I trust that the bit about renouncing violence is the sort of soothing platitude that politicians, liars that they are, utter automatically.) But the bit about recognition is something else.
To recognize, the dictionary says, is to "acknowledge formally," "to acknowledge the de facto existence or the independence of," "to admit as sovereign." So how would the government of Palestine recognize Israel? By formally acknowledging it? Well, it’s there; how could you NOT acknowledge it? By acknowledging its existence, independence, or sovereignty? Again: Israel is there, and its rulers are obviously in charge. I’ve never formally recognized my neighbors, but for forty-one years we’ve gotten along just fine.
Furthermore, on February 19, this year, Condoleezza Rice had a meeting with Palestinian President Abbas and the Israeli Prime Minister Olmert. Evidently the U.S. and Israel are, in fact, dealing with Palestine, recognition or no.
So what does it mean? People, of all kinds, colors, and beliefs, deal with one another in countless ways every day, all around the globe. But the tiny handful of men who call themselves "government" may not recognize their counterparts in other countries if they disagree with them about something. So what?
Rulers rule. If our rulers are miffed by Palestinian rulers, they may rule to prohibit us from traveling there, or vice versa. They may not permit trade, or only with heavy import duties attached. Does this action by our rulers hurt their rulers? Or does it hurt us, and Palestinians? In other words, are these games that governments play with other governments accomplishing nothing except, possibly, harming their respective populations?
Why is it that governments "recognize" one another? It is, I think, a way of justifying their existence: it results in international relationships, treaties, agreements, concords, ententes, etc., etc.: the sort of thing governments do. Could people deal with other people in the absence of governments? Indeed, they could do so more efficiently and cheaply if let alone. But that could lead to catastrophic results: the recognition that, in international affairs, governments are about as useful, if not downright baleful, as they are domestically.
Unthinkable! Or is it?