Earlier this month in Washington, Prime Minister Netanyahu bent over backward to placate President Obama and Palestinian Authority President Abbas. Urging everyone to “think outside the box,” he called for a “historic compromise” between Israelis and Palestinians. Even before negotiations began, Netanyahu reassured Abbas: “You are my partner in peace.”
That very week, as if to demonstrate the folly of Netanyahu’s expectations, Palestinians acted with pitiless brutality. Hamas terrorists murdered four Israelis from Beit Hagai outside Hebron. Yitzhak and Talya Imes left six orphaned children. Kochava Even-Hayim, mother of a young daughter, was in her ninth month of pregnancy. Avishai Shindler had only recently moved to Beit Hagai with his wife.
This horrific tragedy had no discernible impact on Netanyahu. He was not deflected from his hollow rhetoric of peace, nor did he return to Israel for the multiple funerals. He seemed content merely to reiterate that “the Jewish people are not strangers in our homeland . But we recognize that another people share this land with us.”
He must have been pleased when a New York Times editorial, with its predictable rhetorical denial whenever Israelis are murdered, praised him for not leaving Washington after the massacre by Hamas “rejectionists.”
There are, to be sure, multiple issues for Israelis and Palestinians to resolve: final boundaries; the status of Jerusalem; the return of so-called Palestinian refugees (the overwhelming majority of whom have been born since 1948); and, not least, the status of Jewish “settlements,” the communities built since the Six-Day War in Judea and Samaria, the biblical homeland of the Jewish people.
At the moment, the settlement issue looms largest. The ten-month moratorium on settlement construction, to which the Netanyahu government agreed after vigorous arm-twisting by Obama, is due to expire on September 26. Shored up by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu has declared he will not extend it. If he doesn’t, Abbas has promised to exit the newest chapter in the “peace process” charade that began at Oslo nearly twenty years ago.
Will Netanyahu flinch or stand firm when Obama holds his hand to the fire?
Anyone who believes that settlement in the Land of Israel is what Zionism has always been about may, for good reason, be wary of Netanyahu’s assurances. In 1997, during his first term as prime minister, he caved in to pressure from President Clinton to relinquish all but a tiny sliver of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority. In their most ancient holy city, burial place of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, Jews are confined to a ghetto, surrounded by (and also living among) hostile Palestinians – including those who committed the recent murders.
For more than forty years Jewish settlements have provided a litmus test for Israeli prime ministers. In one vital respect, they all have failed it. Regardless of their party affiliation, or their location on the hawk/dove spectrum (personified at its extremes by Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres), they have declined to articulate the compelling, indeed irrefutable, justifications for these settlements in this location.
There is, of course, the two-thousand-year-old yearning of religious Jews, endlessly repeated in prayer, to return to their ancient homeland. And settlement, after all, is what Zionism has always been about. But Israeli politicians have been oblivious to the reinforcement of these claims, ever since 1920, under international law. Their silence reinforces the incessant and erroneous worldwide allegations that settlements violate international legal norms.
By now, however, an array of legal scholars has convincingly demonstrated otherwise. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, calling for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” was endorsed by the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine three years later at the San Remo Conference. The Mandate recognized “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine,” where they would now be guaranteed the right of “close settlement.” Geographically defined, “Palestine” comprised the land east and west of the Jordan River that eventually became Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
Jewish settlement in Palestine was limited in only one respect: Great Britain, the Mandatory Trustee, retained the discretion to “withhold” the right of Jews to settle east but not west of the Jordan River. Consistent with that solitary exception, Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill removed the land east of the river, comprising three-quarters of Palestine, to create Trans-Jordan (now Jordan). But the right of Jews to “close settlement” in truncated Palestine, west of the Jordan River, and to build their national home there, remained unchanged.