President Barack Obama has already placed the Middle East at the very top of his foreign policy agenda. There is nothing inherently wrong with this ordering; quite the contrary. The problem, however, is that the new administration’s ambitious negotiations remain structured upon altogether erroneous assumptions. In this connection, the gravest continuing misrepresentation of all is that there are Arab lands under an Israeli “occupation.”
Today, as always, words matter. Over the years, a notably durable Arab patience in building “Palestine” upon whole mountains of Jewish corpses has drawn directly upon a prior linguistic victory. Yet, the still generally unchallenged language referring provocatively to an Israeli “occupation” always overlooks the pertinent and logically incontestable history of West Bank (Judea/Samaria) and Gaza.
Perhaps the most evident omission still concerns the precise and unwitting manner in which these “Territories” fell into Israel’s hands in the first place. Here it is – simply and widely disregarded – that “occupation” followed the multistate Arab state aggression of 1967. This aggression, of course, was never disguised by Egypt, Syria or Jordan.
A sovereign state of Palestine did not exist before 1967 or 1948. Nor was a state of Palestine ever promised by UN Security Council Resolution 242. Contrary to popular understanding, a state of Palestine has never existed. Never.
Even as a nonstate legal entity, “Palestine” ceased to exist in 1948, when Great Britain relinquished its League of Nations mandate. During the 1948-49 Israeli War of Independence (a war of survival fought because the entire Arab world had rejected the authoritative United Nations resolution creating a Jewish State), West Bank and Gaza came under flagrantly illegal control of Jordan and Egypt respectively. These Arab conquests did not put an end to an already-existing state or to an ongoing trust territory. What these aggressions did accomplish was the effective prevention, sui generis, of a state of “Palestine.”
Let us return to an earlier history. From the Biblical Period (ca. 1350 BCE to 586 BCE) to the British Mandate (1918 – 1948), the land – named by the Romans after the ancient Philistines – was controlled only by non-Palestinian elements. Significantly, however, a continuous chain of Jewish possession of the land was legally recognized after World War I, at the San Remo Peace Conference of April 1920. There, a binding treaty was signed in which Great Britain was given mandatory authority over “Palestine” (the area had been ruled by the Ottoman Turks since 1516) to prepare it to become the “national home for the Jewish People.” Palestine, according to the Treaty, comprised territories encompassing what are now the states of Jordan and Israel, including West Bank and Gaza. Present day Israel comprises only twenty-two percent of Palestine as defined and ratified at the San Remo Peace Conference.
In 1922, Great Britain unilaterally -and without any lawful authority – split off 78 percent of the lands promised to the Jews – all of Palestine east of the Jordan River – and gave it to Abdullah, the non-Palestinian son of the Sharif of Mecca. Eastern Palestine now took the name “Transjordan,’ which it retained until April 1949, when it was renamed as Jordan. From the moment of its creation, Transjordan was closed to all Jewish migration and settlement – a clear betrayal of the British promise in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and a patent contravention of its Mandatory obligations under international law. On July 20, 1951, a “Palestinian” Arab assassinated King Abdullah for the latter’s hostility to Palestinian aspirations and concerns. Regarding these aspirations, Jordan’s “moderate” King Hussein – 19 years later, during September 1970 – brutally murdered thousands of defenseless Palestinians under his jurisdiction.
In 1947, several years prior to Abdullah’s killing, the newly formed United Nations, rather than designate the entire land west of the Jordan River as the long-promised Jewish national homeland, enacted a second partition. Curiously, because this second fission again gave complete advantage to Arab interests, Jewish leaders accepted the painful judgment. As readers of The Jewish Press already know all too well, the Arab states did not accept it. On May 15, 1948, exactly 24 hours after the State of Israel came into existence, Azzam Pasha, Secretary General of the Arab League, declared to a tiny new country founded upon the ashes of the Holocaust: “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre.”
This unambiguous declaration of genocide has been at the core of all subsequent Arab orientations toward Israel, including those of “moderate” Fatah. Even by the strict legal standards of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Arab actions and attitudes toward the microscopic Jewish state in their midst has remained patently annihilatory. For some reason, this persistence has repeatedly been made to appear benign.But President Obama and Senator Mitchell now have a clear obligation to look behind these propagandistic appearances.
In 1967, almost 20 years after Israel’s entry into the community of states, the Jewish state, as a result of its unexpected military victory over Arab aggressor states, gained unintended control over West Bank and Gaza. Although the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war is properly codified in the UN Charter, there existed no authoritative sovereign to whom the Territories could be “returned.” Israel could hardly have been expected to transfer them back to Jordan and Egypt, which had exercised unauthorized and terribly cruel control since the Arab-initiated war of “extermination” in 1948-49. Moreover, the idea of Palestinian “self-determination” had only just begun to emerge after the Six Day War, and – significantly – had not even been included in UN Security Council Resolution 242, which was adopted on November 22, 1967.
For their part, the Arab states convened a summit in Khartoum in August 1967, concluding: “No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it….” The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was formed three years earlier, in 1964, before there were any “Israeli Occupied Territories.” Exactly what was it, therefore, that the PLO sought to “liberate” between 1964 and 1967? This critical question should now be considered by Barack Obama’s special envoy to the region, Senator George Mitchell.
This has been a very brief account of essential historic reasons why the so-called “Palestinian Territories” are not occupied by Israel. Several other equally valid reasons stem from Israel’s intrinsic legal right to security and self-defense. As I have said so often in this column, international law is not a suicide pact. Because a Palestinian state would severely threaten the very existence of Israel – a fact that remains altogether unhidden even in Arab media and governments – the Jewish State is under no binding obligation to end a falsely alleged “occupation.” No state, not even a Jewish one, can ever be required to accept complicity in its own dismemberment.
No doubt, both President Obama and Senator Mitchell want to be fair and evenhanded in their developing plans for the Middle East. To meet this obligation, however, it is essential that they first build all pertinent negotiations upon a firm foundation of historical accuracy and ethical truth. This means, at a minimum, that the aspiring U.S. peacemakers familiarize themselves with correct history, and not simply allow themselves to be swallowed up with their many predecessors in ritualistic dogma and empty platitudes.
Copyright © The Jewish Press, February 27, 2009. All rights reserved
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with military affairs and international law. He is a Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.