The currency of legitimacy

‘Israel under siege’, the Independent’s Robert Fisk wrote a fortnight ago, describing the sentiment among the Israeli political elite at a major conference on ‘the state of the Israeli nation’. The “fear of “de-legitimisation” has run like a thread through almost every debate,” Fisk wrote, which is a telling observation, for what it says about the quality of that somewhat ephemeral thing we call legitimacy.

At first glance, this shouldn’t be surprising, for we might see Israel as under siege for most of its modern history – emerging into a hostile international environment and facing existential challenges from its neighbours. Its survival has been closely linked to its relationship with the United States in a way that few other states share, and its relationship to the Palestinian people a proxy for understanding the Middle East. Surely it should be well used to fending off international criticism?

But what the UN’s Goldstone Report, inquiring into its actions last January in Gaza, has done is to cast a spotlight on what Israel does, instead of what it is. Its is probably well used to justifying the latter, describing itself as a homeland for Jewish people everywhere. In the 21st century, this claim isn’t in doubt any longer, with securing the status of formal diplomatic recognition by most of the world’s states (some Muslim countries excepted). The acceptance of its statehood, however, is different from the acceptance of its legitimate statehood in the sense that states are expected to abide by certain practices and norms of behaviour in its action. So what Israel has done has come under scrutiny in a way, Fisk writes, that it is not used to defending.

States are sovereign with jurisdiction over their internal affairs, but not absolutely so; a quality of where ‘legitimacy’ comes from is in the perceptions and assessments by others of how a state is fulfilling its responsibilities within its internal affairs. And no-one is immune from this. Legitimacy, in this sense, is somewhat relative – it is legitimate because everyone says it is so, and they say it is so because it fits the bill of how we expect a state to behave. So the Goldstone report is important because of its criticisms of Israel’s actions as being incongruent with humanitarian law, and not fitting this set of expectations.

The Israeli state is legitimate, but its actions were not. This alone, to be sure, doesn’t put it ‘beyond the pale’ – but what it does show is how standards and norms of legitimate action are externally established, and that the impact of criticism is more than just sticks and stones. In suffering damage to its reputation it suffers damage to its credibility – and how other states will respond to its future actions.

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