In 1947 the UN officially partitioned the West Bank of the Jordan River into two states, an Arab state and a Jewish one. Under the terms of UN Resolution 181, the Jewish state would be roughly three miles wide with its back up against the sea. The vast majority of the Jewish state was to be desert land (the Negev) with hardly any population. The Jews accepted this partition, and the State of Israel was born. The Arabs rejected the plan and chose war as their course of action. From that time forward, there have been five major wars and a multiplicity of minor ones. A Palestinian Arab state west of the river has never come into existence, and because of Arab aggression, UN Resolution 181 has been null and void for years.
Yet from 1948 until June of 1967, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan occupied the West Bank, and through royal constitutional fiat it made the Arab residents of these territories full-fledged Jordanian citizens. Within the monarchy, these citizens were subjects of the crown but with extremely weak legislative redress. Only three countries recognized Hashemite sovereignty over the West Bank — Britain (Jordan’s protector), Iraq (another Hashemite land ruled by the Jordanian king’s relatives) and Pakistan. The Arab League rejected Jordan’s occupation of the West Bank as illegal. So too did the UN. From 1947 until this very moment, the sovereignty of the territory called the West Bank has yet to be determined.
Before there was an Israel, there was a mandate for Palestine. Palestine was a European name for the territory known always as either Judea or the Land of Israel. It was called Palestine not by Arabs, but by European Christians (mainly the Vatican). The goal of the Church, for many centuries, was to defame the Jews as killers of Christ, blame their expulsion from Israel on their own sinfulness, and disconnect the name Israel from the maps of the Holy Land. The Arabs never called the area Palestine. In fact the nation-state was a foreign concept to the vast Arab world and didn’t come into play until the 1930’s or later. However, for over three thousand years (two thousand in exile) the Jews maintained their ownership of the Land of Israel through both religious practice and continuous scattered residence upon the land.
The mandate for Palestine was established after WWI by the League of Nations and under international law as a “homeland for the Jews”. The former ruler of the land, Turkey, had sided with Germany and Austria during the fighting and lost. Their empire was stripped from them and placed under British and French mandatory authority. The mandate for Palestine included both banks of the Jordan River. Historic Israel-Palestine has nearly always included both banks of the river. The largest collection of “Maps of the Holy Land”, the Vatican collection, displays this land as nearly always straddling both sides of the river. So too does the American Geographical Collection. The League of Nation’s Mandate for Palestine, as a “homeland for the Jews”, reflected this cartographic reality.
Britain was the mandatory power for Palestine. But the British owed a promise to the Hashemites of the Hejaz region of Arabia for their help in defeating the Turks during the war (Lawrence of Arabia and his Arab guerrilla fighters). Winston Churchill solved the problem one Sunday afternoon in Cairo. He simply partitioned the territory of the mandate into two parts, one for the Arabs east of the river and one for the Jews west of the river. The Jews felt betrayed but it was a “take it or leave it” proposition. With one stroke of the pen, Winston Churchill established the only partition which could possibly make any geographic sense, the partition at the river. From that day forward, a three-way struggle for the future of historic Israel-Palestine ensued — the struggle between the Hashemites of the Transjordan (east of the river), the Arabs who lived west of the river (the Palestinians), and the Jewish movement for national liberation (the Zionists).
In 1947 the Zionist leadership understood that any UN plan which recognized a Jewish state in Palestine would be rejected by not only the Palestinians but all Arabs. This, of course, included the Hashemites from across the Jordan River. But David Ben-Gurion knew that there was little love lost between the Palestinians and the Hashemites. Neither side completely trusted the other. King Abdullah I of Jordan lusted for much greater power and prestige than his small desert kingdom provided. He was also a realist who understood that to defeat the Zionists would require maximum coordination and unity on the part of the Arabs. But the Arabs were hardly unified, and Abdullah I understood that to expand his kingdom westward without antagonizing the Zionist movement would indeed be his best move. The Jordanian king wanted the West Bank and a capital in East Jerusalem. Jerusalem would give him prestige, and the West Bank would give him some semblance of power (at least in the Arab world).
Ben-Gurion wanted to come out of the 1948 War of Independence with a Jewish state. He understood that in the shadow of the Holocaust, the Jewish people needed any bit of territory to call their own, no matter how small. It was at this moment that a tacit understanding and a secret relationship between Jordan and Israel first began to develop. At the war’s end, armistice lines were drawn, but there were no peace treaties and no official borders. However, a relationship had been established, and the Jordanian king now occupied the West Bank, officially annexed the territory and made all its Palestinian residents citizens of his country.
This official Jordanian relationship lasted for forty years. Even in 1967, after Israel won the Six-Day War, and the Jordanian Army retreated across the river, the legal, administrative and constitutional relationship between the West Bank and Jordan remained. It took the Palestinians another twenty years to shake off the Jordanian yoke. In all that time, the sovereignty issue of the West Bank has never been determined. Forget all the Palestinian propaganda, the West Bank under international law remains a disputed territory without a sovereign. Israel occupies the Palestinian communities, because there is still a state of war between the two peoples, but the designation of the land remains under dispute.
In 1988 Jordan relinquished all legal and administrative jurisdiction of the West Bank. However, they did not rescind their constitutional relationship to the Palestinians of the West Bank and the Palestinian refugees of the 1967 War who had moved east of the river. Throughout this entire period (1967-1988) a diplomatic war between the Hashemites and the PLO for the future status of the West Bank Arab population persisted. Essentially the PLO won the diplomatic struggle, but its victory had not given it either sovereignty over the disputed territory nor even completely excluded the Hashemites from a future role in the peace process. What the diplomatic victory did accomplish was to exclude the Hashemites from any negotiations over the dispensation of the territory while the Oslo process proceeded.
Oslo (1993) had altered the Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian triangle and moved Israel and the PLO marginally closer. But this was not done at the expense of Jordan. On the contrary, Israel and the Hashemites felt that by including the PLO directly into the negotiations they could better manage them. This premise proved illusory. The PLO had its own agenda: to use diplomacy to accomplish what it couldn’t accomplish on the battlefield. This strategy also proved illusory. After twenty years and three major attempts to add a second partition and a third state to the land, Oslo failed. Now the PLO has found a new strategy–unilateralism. By taking the political deadlock to the various bodies of international law, the PLO hopes that it can be granted a kind of extra-territorial sovereignty over the West Bank. By isolating Israel and eroding her legal, economic and political position, the PLO hopes that unilateralism will lead to an Israeli withdrawal.
Any annexation of West Bank territory by Israel (as a response) will play right into the PLO’s hands. Already vast sections of international opinion believe that both the settlements and the occupation are illegal. Of course they are wrong. Because there is no established sovereign to the disputed territory, Article 49 (paragraph 6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention simply does not apply. Therefore, all the settlements are legal. The US is the only nation with a history that truly understands the correctness of Israel’s position. But politics and international law have more to do with national interests than the right or wrong of any particular issue. The Arabs have always had the numbers and the oil. They also have fifty-nine Muslim majority countries on their side (not to mention countries with large Muslim minorities). But the US is different and Congress should demand that the Obama administration be held to a higher standard.
So if unilateral annexation can only hurt Israel, and standing pat is out of the question, what then should the Jewish state’s strategy be? I suggest that we put the pressure on Jordan. Force the king to either alter the Jordanian constitution and totally sever all relations with the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees (end all citizen rights from 1967 onward), or step up to the plate by taking a leadership role in establishing a federal-democratic-constitutional monarchy. Indirectly, the pressure would also be on the Obama administration as well. The Americans talk a good game when it comes to democracy within the region, but they always let the Jordanian king off the hook. To further the Israeli strategy, the Prime Minister should also emphasize UN Security Resolution 242. This enshrines in international law the necessity to negotiate over the future of the West Bank for a secure Israel. Again, force the king to choose either 242 or not 242. Now that Oslo is dead, the king must decide if he is to play any role in the peace process at all.
Either way, Israel must begin to claim (and rightly so) that although Jordan is not totally Palestine, it is certainly a part of historic Israel-Palestine. Why should the Israeli leadership allow the PLO, the Muslim states and the confused Europeans to define the geography of the conflict? Finally, if King Abdullah II does decide to completely withdraw from all responsibility for the West Bank and UN 242, Israel should keep the pressure on for a democratic constitutional monarchy east of the river. Sooner or later, a Palestinian “entity” of some type will be established on the West Bank and its linkage eastward will be essential for its future economic health. This would be next to impossible with a democratic Arab regime west of the river but an absolute monarchy, with a Palestinian majority, east of the river.
In the post-Oslo era, King Abdullah II will have some big decisions to make. The triangular relationship between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians has never been static. And it certainly is not static now. The king must stand up for democracy, one way or another. As for the Palestinians, unilateral actions will not succeed because the US and Israel understand who was the original aggressor in this conflict. Both nations will stand behind the correct application of international law. In the final analysis, a democratic outcome to the three-way confrontation is the only way to untie the Gordian knot.