The New York Times recently devoted an entire page to a decision by the Palestinian Authority to sever relations with Israel. It represented a “desperate” attempt “to deter Israel from annexing occupied territory” – also known, but unacknowledged, as the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people.
For Palestinians, wrote Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief David M. Halbfinger, “annexation flouts the ban on unilateral land grabs agreed to in the Oslo Accords in the 1990s.” Nor was the Times alone. A chorus of critics, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and the Egyptian and Russian Foreign Ministers decried the Israeli plan to annex “Palestinian” land.
The Times of Israel also overflowed with criticism. Correspondent Judah Ari Gross ominously warned that annexation might lead to a breakdown in relations with Jordan and Persian Gulf Arab nations, while provoking attacks on Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas. Commanders for Israeli Security described the Netanyahu plan as “a threat to Israel’s nature as a Jewish democratic country.” For balance the newspaper even found “radical settler” Ira Rappaport, formerly a member of “the infamous Jewish Underground terrorist cell,” who warned that Netanyahu is “cutting off the Land of Israel from the Jews” by limiting the scope of his annexation plan.
Curiously the Times of Israel also posted a special message to “Community members and Daily Edition readers.” It was unclear to the newspaper why, “after 14 years of quietly expanding Israel’s presence on the West Bank,” Netanyahu is “hell-bent on annexation now.” The risks are great, it warned, including heightened violence, endangering Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan and provoking “much of the international community.”
Unilateral annexation “invites accusations that Israel is torpedoing prospects for a negotiated accord,” thereby undermining its “quietly tolerated presence anywhere and everywhere in the disputed territories.”
Netanyahu, cognizant of the risk of alienating allies, has retreated (for now) to focus on retaining three blocs with the largest population of settlers: Gush Etzion, just south of Jerusalem (24,000 inhabitants); Ma’ale Adumim, between Jerusalem and Jericho (40,000); and Ariel, twenty-five miles east of Tel Aviv (20,000). It is inconceivable that any of these established and prosperous communities – with yeshivas, universities, hospitals, shopping centers and high-rise apartments – would be relinquished by Israel under any circumstances. Likewise Kiryat Arba, adjacent to Hebron, burial place of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs where King David ruled before relocating his throne to Jerusalem.
The Times, whether in New York or Israel, conspicuously ignores – or knowingly disregards – international law, with its unequivocal legitimization of Jewish sovereignty west of the Jordan River. It began with the Balfour Declaration (1917), declaring: ”His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, . . . it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine….” National rights for these communities were pointedly omitted.
Five years later the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine unambiguously acknowledged that the Balfour Declaration recognized “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and … the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.” The Mandate guaranteed “close settlement by Jews” on the land east and west of the Jordan River. But Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill removed the land east of the river to become the Kingdom of Jordan, ruled by Emir Abdullah. There was no mention of “Palestinians,” Arabs who had yet to emerge with a distinctive national identity.
In 1948, amid Arab efforts to annihilate the fledging Jewish state, Biblical Judea and Samaria came under Jordanian control. No Jews – or, indeed, Palestinians – lived in what became known as Jordan’s “West Bank.” There were Jordanian Arabs and Arab refugees. Only when Israeli Jews, identified as “settlers,” began to return to their Biblical homeland after the Six-Day War did a “Palestinian” national identity emerge. Then international organizations and media, oblivious to Jewish history and international law, began to berate the Jewish state for depriving Palestinians of “their” homeland.
In the currently furious debate over Israeli “annexation,” the Times in both New York and Israel ignore a century of international law. Never rescinded, it protects the right of Jews to inhabit the Land of Israel west of the Jordan River. Nor do the newspapers seem aware that the Kingdom of Jordan comprises two-thirds of Palestine, gifted by Churchill to Abdullah a century ago. And, according to the most recent census, more than half the Jordanian population is of Palestinian origin. The location of a Palestinian state is east, not west, of the Jordan River.
It is likely to remain an imposing challenge for Israel, confronting both external and internal opposition, to justify “annexing” Judea and Samaria – although “returning” is more accurate. Extending Israeli sovereignty over settlements is not annexation of “Palestinian” land. It is, by history and under international law, Jewish land. And, since Palestinians comprise at least half of Jordan’s population, living in two-thirds of “Palestine” as demarcated by international law a century ago and never rescinded, it is a stretch to imagine them as “homeless.”
And, one might wonder, how can Israel “annex” the land that is its Biblical and historical homeland?
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, named by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Mosaic Best Book for 2019.