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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON THE MIDDLE EAST

Good Neighbors or Bloodshed?

The Palestinians can have a self-governing state, just not one that threatens Israel's existence or security.

October 18, 1998|DAVID BAR-ILAN | David Bar-Ilan is director of policy planning and communications in the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

In a recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Yasser Arafat talked of "the need to realize justice for the Palestinian people, to restore their international status and their seat at the United Nations." He referred to "our country, Palestine" and expressed the hope that it would be "restored its freedom."

The meaning of this message--repeated in every appearance of Palestinian officials and permeating Palestinian schoolbooks--is clear: Palestine is a country that belonged to the Palestinians until it was invaded and usurped by the Jews. Jerusalem was the Palestinian capital now being "Judaized" by Israel. Justice will be served only if the Palestinians are allowed to reestablish their sovereignty in it.

That all this is unadulterated fiction has not prevented many governments from accepting it as fact. Nor has it deterred pundits and politicians from upbraiding Israel for failing to "give back" Palestinian land.

In fact, there never has been a state called Palestine nor have the Palestinian Arabs ever been an independent people, and Jerusalem never has been an Arab or Muslim capital. Jerusalem has had an absolute Jewish majority for more than a century (and a plurality before that), and for the past 3,000 years, only the Jewish people have called it their capital. (An exception of sorts were the Crusaders, who used Jerusalem as an administrative capital.) To inveigh against "Judaizing" Jerusalem is like protesting the Arabization of Cairo.

This does not mean that Palestinian nationalism is not real or that a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict should not take it into account. But if justice is to be served, the rightful ownership of the land should be clarified.

According to the League of Nations covenant, the lands the Allies conquered in the Middle East in World War I were to be administered as "mandates" for the benefit of the peoples intended to achieve self-determination.

The Palestine mandate's declared purpose was the implementation of the Balfour Declaration, in which the British government committed to establishing a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

The mandate specifically highlighted the "historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine," recognizing that the Jews' millennial ties to the land of Israel were a source of national rights over and above the rights granted in the mandate. The concept was that Britain would administer the territory so that Jews could return to Zion to "reconstitute" the Jewish homeland through "close settlement," become a majority, largely through immigration, and establish a democratic, independent government that would recognize the civil and religious rights of all its citizens.

The League of Nations did not consider the Palestine Arabs unduly harmed by becoming a minority in a Jewish state because the Arab people were to have sovereign rights in vast surrounding territories. Nor did any Arab leader at the time contend that the Arabs of Palestine were a distinct people entitled to national self-determination.

In 1921, Britain divided "Mandate Palestine" along the Jordan River, restricting the mandate's Jewish-national-home provisions to western Palestine. The eastern province (approximately 75% of the territory) was put under Arab administration and became independent in 1946 as Transjordan, now known as the kingdom of Jordan.

When in 1947 the British relinquished their responsibilities in western Palestine, the United Nations General Assembly recommended partitioning the country into separate Jewish and Arab states. But the U.N. Security Council never took the action that would have made the partition plan binding under international law.

The Jewish authorities accepted this recommendation. The Arab powers rejected it, and the day after the British administration departed in May 1948, the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states attacked the embryonic state of Israel with the declared intention to destroy it. Under the circumstances, Israel had the right to assert sovereignty over any portion of "Mandate Palestine" that came under its control.

In 1967, Israel acquired the West Bank and Gaza in a defensive war. It took away control not from the Palestinians, but from the occupation forces of Jordan and Egypt, which had no recognized right to these areas.

Under international law, Israel's rights in these territories come from two sources: the rights of the Jewish people under the mandate regarding territory that never came under any state's recognized sovereignty; and the rights of conquest of territory in a defensive war.

If Israel is willing to forfeit these rights in some of these territories, it is not because it is obligated to do so, but because Israelis do not want to govern the lives of 2 million Palestinian Arabs.

Today, 98% of the Palestinian population is governed by the Palestinian Authority. They already possess attributes of self-government like executive, judiciary and legislative bodies, a police force and a flag.

For a permanent settlement to succeed, the Palestinians should have all the powers to govern their lives and none of the powers to threaten the lives of Israelis. They will have full control of all aspects of their society: law, religion, education, industry, commerce, agriculture, tourism, health and welfare. What they cannot do is endanger Israel's existence.

The Palestinians have a choice: They can either accept a compromise that will enable them to flourish as good neighbors of Israel and Jordan, or they can threaten violence in order to "restore" a state of Palestine, whose avowed purpose is to replace Israel. The former will bring peace and prosperity. The latter bloodshed, war and continued suffering for all.

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