The kerfuffle over Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank calls our attention to one important feature (although an often ignored one) of the Arab-Israeli conflict; that it is not so much a religious conflict as fundamentally a territorial dispute involving two national communities staking claim to the same land. Let us go back in history to see why that is the case.
Der Judenstaat or The Jewish State written by the father of Zionism Theodor Herzl envisaged a national home for the Jewish people whose location was not specified. In fact, Herzl came close to accepting Britain’s offer of a ‘Jewish territory’ in Uganda, East Africa.
The aliyot (waves of immigration) to Eretz Israel from across Europe starting from the late 19th century were most concentrated in the coastal plains and the surrounding fecund agricultural lands. The city of Tel Aviv, with little connection to the ancient Kingdom of David, flourished as a bustling city for wealthy European Jews. At the same time, Judea and Samaria (as the West Bank is known among right-wing circles) were composed of a preponderant Arab majority.
The gumption with which the Yishuv sought to build a state for themselves after the fateful Balfour Declaration and Britain was awarded the mandate for Palestine by the league of nations was restricted to snaffling up huge tracts of those Arab lands where the returns were promising. This virtually always meant places like Haifa and Jaffa, not Hebron or Nablus. This demonstrates the fact that even at the zenith of Zionist activity, when Ben Gurion and his men were toiling at white heat in the kibbutzim, the areas that held the highest significance for Judaism were beyond Jewish control.
This reality on the ground was reflected in subsequent reports prepared by Britain and the United Nations. The Peel Commission Report of 1937 which recommended partition as the only solution to resolve this intractable conflict, allocated the entire West Bank, Gaza and the Negev Desert to the Palestinian state.
Ten years later, in the partition plan proposed by the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP) which the Zionist lobbying groups in America devoted their best efforts to get passed, the whole of Judea and Samaria fell squarely on the Palestinian side.
Even after Israel became independent in 1948, trouncing its Arab enemies, it would take another 19 years for the Jewish state to secure control over its holiest lands. West Bank was under Jordanian control until the six-day war in 1967 which demonstrated the agonising incompetence of the Arab world led by Abdal Nasser and their incapacity to spearhead the Palestinian cause.
We must bear in mind these important historical developments when populist politicians talk about annexing the holy lands in the name of religion. Religion has never been at the heart of this conflict although it is an important and sometimes a menacing adjunct. Israel has existed without the West Bank and is capable of doing so in the future. Judea and Samaria are not central to Israel’s identity. The proliferation of settlements there over the decades are a product of the refusal of this fundamental truth by right-wing figures and swivel-eyed Zionists.
The conflict would end only when both Jews and Arabs have a state of their own. We’re only halfway there. Any attempt to scupper this solution would only complicate the struggle, prolong the strife and make a peace plan which already seems Sisyphean, all the more remote. As a column in the Haaretz wrote recently, “Anyone living in a country that was founded as a result of a UN resolution, one based on the right to self-determination, would have to betray himself to deny the native people who live alongside us that very same right.”