On August 6, 2002, Donald Rumsfeld had the temerity to call the West Bank and Gaza Strip "the so-called occupied territories." He couldn't have been more correct. The "occupied territories," after all, is shorthand for the idea that Israel has no rights either legal or practical to any of this inflamed real estate.
Like the facile phrase "land for peace," it is meant to short-circuit a dense history and convince the world that the turmoil in the Middle East stems from Israel's unwillingness to return the land it won from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the Six Day War, a war imposed on it by Cairo and Damascus with the connivance of Moscow.
(Israel also won the Golan Heights in that war, but the demand for its return to Syria has quieted at least temporarily because, after September 11, 2001, it is hard to justify giving strategically crucial territory to a terrorist-supporting regime.)
If only Israel devolved to the Palestinians what it won in June 1967 (the West Bank between the 1949 armistice lines and the Jordan river, plus the Gaza Strip), peace and justice would be restored to the Middle East.
But there was no peace in the Middle East before 1967. Indeed, there was great turmoil directed at Israel. And there was no justice for the Arabs of Palestine. The 1947 U.N. partition plan had envisioned, along with the Jewish one, an Arab state: The word Palestine was hardly uttered. But, in the two decades before the 1967 war, Jordan (which had annexed the West Bank) and Egypt (which had run Gaza as a virtual penitentiary, no one in and no one out) instead ruled the territories for themselves.
Palestinian nationalists during this time, according to the noted Binghamton University scholar Don Peretz (no relation of mine, familial or political), were "instruments of national policy of various Arab governments, ... of inter-Arab policy maneuvers." With the defeat of their Arab caretakers by Israel, however, young Palestinian commandos coalesced around an audacious goal: "to obliterate completely the Jewish state." Where did this élan come from? Peretz explains: "In the unrwa schools, where refugee children were educated by Palestinian teachers, a new generation of ardent Palestinian patriots was raised. The most zealous proponent of militant activism against the 'intruder state' of Israel was this new generation of U.N.-educated youth."
Israelis grasped the Palestinian goal of politicide toward the Jewish state, and their consciousness was reinforced by the second intifada, launched in September 2000 amidst unprecedented concessions from Jerusalem. Given that the end of the Jewish state remains the Palestinians' overriding desire, no Israeli government can trust in the irreversibility of Arab obligations taken at the negotiating table.
Nonetheless, on certain matters, in the current talks brokered by the United States, this Israeli government has already taken that risk. It has released convicted terrorists from jail, some (if not most) ready again to plot and commit murder. Israel has also taken largely on faith the Palestinian Authority's (P.A.) commitment to put an end to the violence against Israelis perpetrated by both jihadist gangs, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the P.A.'s own affiliated militias.
The P.A., after all, has publicly refused to even try to confiscate the weaponry of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Instead, the road map gives them a three-month truce during which to rebuild the strength sapped by Israeli counterterrorism measures during the last year. Will those released terrorists be stopped from killing Israelis again? If the cease-fire Mahmoud Abbas has promised to sustain turns out to be just another calm before another storm, the road map will lead to nowhere.
But, while prisoners can be rearrested and cease-fires ended, the territorial concessions Israel makes in a final agreement would have the aura and substance of permanence. Which is why Rumsfeld's phrase alarmed some and consoled others. The implications of Rumsfeld's construction could not have been more correct: From the perspective of international law, all the equities regarding the West Bank and Gaza accrue to Israel. Here the crux is the Mandate for Palestine confirmed by the League of Nations in 1922. To be sure, this document severed that part of Palestine on the eastern side of the Jordan from the land reserved for the Jewish people by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and set in process Hashemite rule there.
But, otherwise, the British were charged with facilitating the establishment of the Jewish national home. The mandate specifically provided for Jewish immigration and, perhaps most important to the current debate, guaranteed the right to "close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands." (By what right did the League so decide the destiny of this particular territory? The truth is that this is how the remains of all of the defeated Ottoman Empire, Turkey itself aside, were distributed.) One might say the U.N.'s 1947 partition plan for Palestine superseded the mandate. But the Arabs all rejected that plan. And no government other than Pakistan's and Great Britain's recognized Jordanian sovereignty in the West Bank. More to the point, Israel never ceded any of the rights granted to its legal predecessor, the Jewish Agency for Palestine, by the League, and such a relinquishing was not made a precondition of Israel's admission to the United Nations in 1949.
This is not a convoluted justification for Israeli settlements, some of which are highly provocative to the surrounding Palestinians and preclude the contiguity of a future Palestinian state. I was against these settlements when they were built (some by Labor governments), and I assume that, as part of a real peace agreement, many perhaps most of them will be disbanded. How should such decisions be made? Since it is assumed by nearly everybody that scrupulous attention will be paid to the religious sensibilities of the Arabs in the making of any final boundaries, like-minded care should also be paid to the comparable sensibilities of the Jews: Jews should have access to sites holy to them in the historic lands of Judea and Samaria. Another consideration will be the size of the different Jewish communities. As a general rule, fortunately, the larger they are, the closer they are to the 1949 lines. But not all; one community Ariel would have remained with Israel even under the Clinton rules.
The basic principle in such decisions will be Israel's security. Israel's precarious lines of defense need to be much stronger than they were before 1967, and the wall now being built to divide Israelis and Palestinians is part of that strategy. (The wall, by the way, was a wise contrivance not of Israel's hawks but of its doves.) The wall deviates from the pre-'67 borders, as it should. Those who object to these deviations see them as precedents for a future permanent border, which they are not. But what the critics do not grasp is that, in a serious negotiation, Israel's aims will actually be greater than the wall's reach. Israel will also be eager to transfer some of its territory within the green line especially Arab neighborhoods around Jerusalem and Arab towns elsewhere in the country to nascent Palestine. Then we will see how Palestinian these Arab citizens of Israel really feel.
One demand Israel will almost certainly make is for control over its border with Jordan. Not because King Abdullah (or his father, for that matter) seeks Israel's destruction. To the contrary, Israel rescued the Hashemites in 1970 by turning back columns of Syrian tanks that had invaded Jordan while the monarchy put down a Palestinian revolt instigated by Yasir Arafat. Rather, Jordan is a danger to Israel because of its weakness. The Jordanians were appalled when Ehud Barak seemed open, at Camp David and at Taba, to loosening Israel's hold on the then-emerging Palestinian state's border with the kingdom. The monarchy has good reason to fear the Palestinians west of the river and at home.
Yes, recent elections in Jordan must have offered the king some comfort: Polling mechanisms that disenfranchised Jordan's Palestinians kept the opposition ultras from gaining too many seats. But the Muslim extremists and the outright jihadists in Jordan, as everywhere else in that part of the world, are growing in number and in ferocity. And the Palestinians, mostly descendants of émigrés from the other side of the river, constitute 60 percent of Jordan's population, maybe more. They resent the king for his fidelity to his father's peace with Israel. These two sources of opposition are volatile. If they rise, no one can guarantee the outcome.