The Washington Post belongs to an exclusive club that comprise of some premier American newspapers, of which the Editorial Boards are known for their well thought out, well balanced and generally fact-supported opinions. However, in my view the WP Board erred in its opinion published on December 30, 2016 titled “On Israel, we’re right back where Obama started”. In short, the WP Board stated that the Israeli settlements across the West Bank are not an impediment to reaching a peace agreement and that the “Two State Solution remains entirely viable”. In addition, the WP Board said that the failure to reach an agreement is not the demographic question and laid the blame on the inability of the Palestinian leadership as well as the Israeli leadership to bring themselves to agree to concessions and offers. The Palestinian President Mr. Abas could not bring himself to agree to some generous Israeli offers, the WP Board said, and Israel’s Prime Minister Mr. Netanyahu has been unable or unwilling to stand up to nationalists in his right-wing government. A brief historical account demonstrates the WP Board’s fundamental errors in judgement.
While it is an historical fact that the Palestinians, dating back to the UN Partition Plan of November 29, 1947 and over the decades that followed, missed significant opportunities to establish their sovereign state, it is also true that all of the Israeli governments formed subsequent to the stunning victory in the Six Day war of 1967, regardless of political inclination, referred to the West Bank as “Yehuda and Shomron” (Judea and Samaria) and encouraged, overtly and covertly and through various political maneuvers, the establishment and expansion of Israeli settlements.
The late Mr. Shimon Peres, formerly Israel’s prime minister and subsequently its president, who was exalted for his so called relentless efforts to bring peace, early on following the stunning victory of 1967 exhibited hawkish opinions and unequivocally supported the establishment of Jewish settlements on lands occupied by Israel. The late Mr. Moshe Dayan who was at that time Israel’s Minister of Defense and later Minister of Foreign Affairs voiced his opinion that the legal status of the land should first be clarified before allowing such settlements to be built. However, he and the government succumbed to the political power of the newly formed “Gush Emunim” (Block of the Faithful) who viewed the Israeli victory as nothing short of a God-sent and the act of occupation as akin to the liberation of the entire West Bank. As such, the people at Gush Emunim held the opinion that land liberated by Israel and thus divinely ordained to them can never be defined as occupied by its righteous owners and therefore allowing the re-establishment of Jewish settlements across the redeemed biblical Israelite Kingdom. This very same opinion is currently held by members of Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet as well as members of his Likud party.
To bolster the claim that the West Bank is not an occupied land, the Israeli government enlisted the help of notable legal scholars (all Jewish, some secular and some religious) who issued an opinion that indeed the land cannot be defined as occupied. This opened the door to self-justification and to the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem. It should be noted that the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem has never been accepted as meeting international laws and has been consistently rejected by the international community, including the United States. All of the US administrations since 1967 as well as governments of other nations friendly to Israel always opined that the status of Jerusalem must be settled taking into consideration some necessary territorial adjustments to satisfy Israeli claims over portions of the Old City where the Western Wall, the Jewish most sacred site on earth, be included under full Israeli jurisdiction. Secretary Kerry, in his speech of December 29, 2016 did not stray from that axiom.
Furthermore, Israel went on to define large swaths of land across the West Bank as either “State Lands” (“Adamot Medina” as akin to Federal Lands in the US) or as “military firing lands” (“Shitchey Esh”) ostensibly set aside for Israeli military training exercises. Of course, it remains to be defined which “state” owns the lands so declared. Is it Israel or perhaps Palestine? Since the land is clearly not under Israeli sovereign jurisdiction and since Palestine has not been established as a sovereign state it follows that the definition of “State Lands” may not stand legal scrutiny. It further follows that the use of the land by the Israeli military for its training exercises is contrary to international laws. In this context it should be noted that nearly all of the Israeli governments used the “military firing lands” ordinance to evacuate Palestinians who lived on some of those lands and eventually allowed the establishment of Jewish “outposts” (temporary in nature) that later were laundered into full fledge permanent settlements. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that these activities by the Israeli governments are utterly illegal. But in the opinion of the WP Board these illegal activities are not an impediment to peace. Israel need not rectify these illegal circumstances and the Palestinians must accept the consequences of these illegal actions as part of the peace agreement.
Israel established a military rule over the entire West Bank administered by an “Office of the Civil Coordinator” that was headed by a high ranking military officer who exercised nearly an absolute authority over the Palestinian population via rules and orders, not necessarily in full accordance with either Israeli laws or Jordanian laws that prevailed over the territory prior to the 1967 war. If anyone in Israel believed that the land cannot be defined as occupied, then why was not it annexed? Even today, when the majority of the Palestinian people are governed to a limited extent by their Palestinian Authority (PA), Israel maintains the office of the Civil Coordinator and still issues orders and ordinances signed by a military officer. Secretary Kerry was correct by describing the trials and tribulations of the Palestinians who wish to travel within territories governed by the PA yet be subjected to Israeli military road blocks. The WP Board erred by not addressing this untenable situation, a clear obstacle to peace.
Every Israeli government knows full well that under current and applicable international laws the land remains “occupied” regardless of any internal Israeli self-serving so called legal opinions, and thus the population is defined as living under a military occupation. Willingly or not, Israel is bound to abide by the international rules of war and therefore by default the establishment of settlements for its Israeli citizens on the occupied land is deemed unlawful. It is as simple as can be. So if the status of the land remains as occupied every each and one of the settlements is considered illegal. All of them were established contrary to international laws. The question that follows is why would the occupied people acquiesce to the presence of any settlements established by their occupiers in their midst? Indeed the settlements are, and will remain so, a formidable obstacle to reaching an agreement contrary to assertions by Mr. Netanyahu that they are not, and contrary to the opinion of the WP Board. Furthermore, Secretary John Kerry was correct in clearly stating so.
As far as the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are concerned, the WP Board failed to acknowledge the simple fact that Mr. Netanyahu himself, in his own spoken words, declared that so long as he is in office there will not be a Palestinian state. Secretary Kerry took Mr. Netanyahu at his word. Why would not the WP Board do the same? How can the WP Board reconcile Mr. Netanyahu’s unequivocal statement with its assertion that the Two State Solution is alive and well? Perhaps the WP Board believes that Mr. Netanyahu’s statement should not have any effect on the Palestinian leadership. Why would they come to the negotiating table if the Israeli’s clearly state that the outcome will fall short of the most rudimentary of their aspirations? Moreover, on December 29, 2016 Israel’s Minister of Education, Mr. Naftali Bennett, an ultra-nationalist religious zealot, declared clearly and in no uncertain terms during a TV interview that the idea of a Two State Solution has been permanently removed from consideration.
There will never be a Palestinian state, according to him. Mr. Bennett went on to say that anyone who still clings to the idea of an independent Palestinian state has “no room in the Israeli government”. Mr. Bennett said also that the Palestinians already have a sovereign state named “Gaza” governed by Hamas. There is no point of talking about a “second Palestinian state”, he stated. A clear and overt reference to Mr. Netanyahu’s assertion during his recent “60 Minutes” interview that he is focused on achieving peace through the implementation of a Two State Solution. A clear dichotomy between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Bennett. Why would the WP Board not take Mr. Bennett at his word? Perhaps because the WP Board believes that the statements made by Netanyahu and Bennett have no bearing on Israel’s readiness to accept a Two State Solution and that they were intended for their respective constituents. While this may be true, why would the Palestinians brush them aside and consider them irrelevant? Again, Secretary Kerry simply called “a spade a spade”.
Last but not least is the issue of a potential land swap that the WP Board considered in its editorial opinion. Indeed, some preliminary ideas had been floating around for some time more so subsequent to the signing of the Oslo agreement in 1993. In its core, the land swap is aimed primarily to retain under Israel’s jurisdiction some Israeli settlements in what is known as “Gusheyi Ha’hityashvut” (Blocks of Settlements) while others will be dismantled and their inhabitants vacate the land. In return, the Palestinian state will receive an approximately comparable land area that is currently situated within the pre-1967 Israel. On its face, it seems that this maybe a viable solution. History is full of tales of nations that engaged in land swaps that redefined their borders and affected the makeup of their societies. A good example maybe the peaceful breakup of Czechoslovakia into two sovereign states that included some land swaps to facilitate the process and allow the creation of contiguous territories. The WP Board failed to make reference to the fact that the current configuration of the Blocks of Settlements and the roads leading to them create enclaves that effectively preclude a contiguous Palestinian territory. A cursory review of the current map of the West Bank (2015 published by the UN) depict exactly what Secretary Kerry called “Swiss cheese”. It will be an extraordinary challenge for anyone to attempt and draw some meaningful borders between Israel and Palestine. In fact, it is impossible. Only a fool would be tempted to believe that the Israeli governments did not plan the configuration of the Blocks of Settlements precisely with that in mind. The Blocks of Settlements were not just constructed – they were built as a deliberate plan. Secretary Kerry was “spot on” when he addressed the issue.
In all fairness it must be said that President Abas faces his own militant right-wing opposition that rejects any territorial concessions to Israel. In fact, some of the most vocal, and perhaps violent, groups advocate for the eradication of Israel and the recovery of all of Palestine, including all of Israel, into a future Palestinian state. Mr. Abas failed to convince his people that the recognition of Israel and her right to exist in peace and security is enshrined in the Oslo agreement. It is not at all clear that if faced with a real and viable opportunity, Mr. Abas would not repeat Yasser Arafat’s colossal mistake of rejecting a prior, very generous Israeli offer that was presented to him by President Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Finally, Secretary Kerry mentioned the question of Palestinian refugees that were left, or displaced from their villages and towns during the 1948 war that Israel rightly calls “war of independence” and the Palestinians refer to as their “Nakba” (Catastrophe). The Palestinians advocate for the right of return but it is considered a non-starter, and rightly so, by Israel. I believe that if all other issues be rectified and a viable agreement be finally on the table, and cool heads prevail, the issue of refugees can be and will be resolved. The general approach described by Secretary Kerry seems to be just and equitable.