The phrase keeps coming up, and every time, I wonder what is it supposed to mean? Which Israel? In what boundaries? Exist how? Most recently, I saw it in a letter from Rabbi Michael Lerner, a mostly reasonable man I always find worthwhile listening to. He criticizes "those who deny Israel's right to exist—and hence deny to the Jewish people the same right to national self-determination that they grant to every other people on the planet..."
First off, the "right to national self-determination" is not granted "to every other people on the planet." We need go no further than the Chechens. Or the Kurds. And a score or more other groups that consider themselves "nations" (they have their own language and historical myths) but are denied statehood.
More importantly, "national self-determination" is obsolete and unsustainable in our "globalized" world of the 21st century. It's an idea that belongs to the 19th and early 20th centuries, when it was advertised as the way to cast off colonial oppression. But "national liberation" (not to mention "national socialism" and other varieties) quickly came to mean individual and minority-group suppression or even extermination. It means that only people of "our" national group have full rights in "our" state. Today, populations everywhere are on the move, and every state is ethnically mixed. Such exclusionary states are asking for trouble, and their decision-makers (not their people, of course) deserve all the trouble they invite.
In the case of Israel, "national self-determination" is an especially incoherent concept. What is the "nation," and whom does it exclude? Are the "ins" all Jews, everywhere? Or only those accepted as true Jews by Israeli religious authorities? No, probably not. How about all Hebrew-speakers? Or maybe what is meant is, All those who feel themselves to be Israelis. But then, what about non-Jewish, Christian, Muslim or atheist people who have lived in Israel all their lives?
If those last groups are included, then, thankfully, we have got past gab about "nations" and can think in terms of "citizens," whose rights are civil and legal, not ancestral. The Israel that can and should exist would not be a Jewish state, but a modern one that recognizes the citizenship (regardless of the religion or the lack of it) of all the people in the territories it administers.
As always, I invite comment. For more by Rabbi Michael Lerner, see Tikkun — A Jewish Magazine, an Interfaith Movement