Photo Credit: Asher Schwartz

{Originally posted to the JNS website}

The announcement of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Israel-Palestinian peace plan instantly, and predictably, riled his critics, especially at The New York Times.


Although Times’ Jerusalem Bureau Chief David Halbfinger and his colleague Isabel Kershner had yet to see the president’s proposal, they quickly discredited it. “Neither the plan nor the visit [upcoming to Washington] by [Israeli] Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may do much to advance the cause of peace.” Indeed, they already knew that “the occasion promises to be a surreal spectacle” (Jan. 20, 2020).

As for the plan’s content, they cited “varying leaks” in the Israeli news media indicating that the Netanyahu government and its right-wing supporters “could hardly have improved” on the Trump proposal, while Palestinians were certain to “treat any American plan as dead on arrival.” What aroused Palestinian and Times’ criticism? According to Israeli media speculation, Israel would annex the Jordan Valley (which Netanyahu has already pledged to do); extend sovereignty over all Jewish settlements (comprising one-third of the West Bank); and place Jerusalem, in its entirety, under Israeli control.

Halbfinger and Kershner cited “many” (unnamed) Israeli analysts who interpret the Trump invitation as “a wily maneuver” orchestrated by Netanyahu “to entrap” the political novice Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White Party. Perhaps. But Times reporters, like Israel’s critics (to say nothing of Palestinians), are evidently unaware that history and international law decisively answer the question: Where is Palestine, and who is its rightful ruler?

Israeli settlements are explicitly protected by international agreements dating back to the World War I era and never rescinded. The Balfour Declaration (1917) called for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” It was endorsed by the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine in 1922, which recognized “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine” and “the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.” Jews were granted the right of “close settlement” throughout Palestine, defined as the land east and west of the Jordan River. There were, as yet, no self-identified “Palestinians” to protest.

But the mandate permitted Great Britain, which was the Mandatory Trustee, to “postpone” or “withhold” the right of Jews to settle east of the Jordan River, comprising two-thirds of Mandatory Palestine. That land was a gift bestowed by Winston Churchill to Hashemite Sheik Abdullah for what became the Kingdom of Jordan. The internationally guaranteed legal right of Jews to settle west of the Jordan River, in what had been biblical Judea and Samaria, remained unchanged.

That legal right was more precisely defined following the 1967 Six-Day War. U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 stipulated that Israel would be required, “upon a just and lasting peace in the Middle East,” to withdraw its armed forces from “territories”—not “the territories” or “all the territories” it now ruled.

The absence of “the” was not accidental. According to Eugene V. Rostow, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs who drafted Resolution 242, “the Jewish right of settlement in the area is equivalent in every way to the right of the existing [Palestinian] population to live there.” No limitation or prohibition on Jewish settlement was adopted, nor has the right of Jews to settle west of the Jordan River in biblical Judea and Samaria been rescinded.

Trump, like New York Times’ reporters and editors, may not know much about Middle East history or international law. But doubtlessly to their dismay, he seems prepared to come out on the right side of it. If implemented, his plan will reaffirm the right of Jews to continue to inhabit a substantial portion of their biblical homeland, which, after all, is what Zionism is all about.

If past is indeed prologue and current signs are accurate, there is no reason to expect that Palestinian rulers will accept any part of Trump’s plan. Indeed, there is every reason to anticipate that should a Palestinian state be authorized and implemented, it would very quickly resemble the existing de facto Palestinian state in Gaza.

Whatever the outcome, this much is already clear: Not since U.S. President Harry Truman recognized the State of Israel upon its birth on May 14, 1948 has any of his presidential successors been as generous to the Jewish state as Donald Trump.

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Jerold S. Auerbach, professor emeritus of history at Wellesley College, is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016."