On the eve of his reelection as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated on Israeli television that he intended to extend Israeli sovereignty over Jewish settlements, home to 450,000 residents. He made it clear that he was not considering annexing the entire West Bank, inhabited by two million Palestinians. He added: “I will not uproot anyone, and I will not transfer sovereignty to the Palestinians.”
Settlements have been a source of contention among Israelis and fodder for critics of the Jewish state ever since Israel triumphantly returned to its biblical homeland during the Six-Day War. It began, appropriately, in Hebron, burial site of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs, where King David reigned before relocating his throne to Jerusalem to unify Judea and Samaria (the “West Bank”) within his kingdom. The return of Jews to their ancient capitol city in 1967, nearly forty years after murderous Arab riots claimed nearly seventy Jewish lives and destroyed their community, marked the beginning of renewal. Slowly, but with unyielding determination, tens of thousands of Israelis have returned to their ancient homeland in Judea and Samaria.
Vehement denunciation of Netanyahu’s announcement predictably erupted from liberal Jewish critics. Haaretz lacerated Netanyahu for “a panicked pre-election maneuver and maybe even a complete cock-up.” New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg absurdly asserted that Netanyahu “wants to begin unilaterally annexing the West Bank, putting Israel further on the path toward a single state where Jews rule over Arabs.” New Yorker editor David Remnick, castigating Netanyahu for his appeal to “racists and absolutists,” accused him of willingness “to trade the rule of law for annexation.”
It went unnoticed by Netanyahu’s enraged critics that decades of international law support Jewish settlements. It began with the Balfour Declaration in 1917: “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” It was endorsed by the League of Nations Mandate, which recognized “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine.” Jews were granted the right of “close settlement” throughout “Palestine” – geographically defined as the land east and west of the Jordan River.
But to placate the ambitions of Hashemite Sheik Abdullah, Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill removed the land east of the Jordan River for the Sheik’s own kingdom. There was no mention of “Palestinians” for the simple reason that they did not yet exist as a recognized, or even self-recognized, people.
Forty-five years later, following the Six-Day War, UN Resolution 242 provided that following “a just and lasting peace” between Israel and its neighbors, it would be required to withdraw its armed forces from “territories” –not from “the territories,” or “all the territories,” west of the Jordan River. That language was intentional. The right of the Jewish people under international law to “close settlement” west of the Jordan River has never been rescinded.
For decades Jewish settlements have been relentlessly blamed, especially by Israelis on the left and liberal American Jewish leaders, for the absence of peace in the Middle East. Recent history suggests otherwise. Ever since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon commanded the withdrawal of Jewish settlers from Gaza (where Jews had lived until the 1929 riots forced their departure), southern Israel has confronted waves of Palestinian rocket attacks and tunnels. So much for the absence of settlements and peace.
Netanyahu’s announcement of Israeli sovereignty over the settlements may have been nothing more than a pre-election ploy to secure support from right-wing voters, as critics furiously charged. But the newly reelected Prime Minister understands, even if his liberal critics do not, that Judea and Samaria, the biblical heartland of the Jewish people, do not belong to its previous Jordanian occupier nor to its current Palestinian claimants.
By skirting annexation at one extreme and abandonment at the other, Netanyahu – soon to become the longest serving Israeli Prime minister – demonstrated his fidelity to Jewish history, international law and the security of Jews who have chosen to return to their biblical homeland.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016, recently published by Academic Studies Press.