In a demonstration of how completely at odds his views are from those of the foreign policy establishment, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman reportedly asked the State Department to stop using the term “occupied territories” and instead refer to the “West Bank.” According to accounts that have filtered out of Foggy Bottom, the State Department said no. But we are also told that after pressure “from above”—i.e. President Donald Trump, the current boss of everyone at State as well as Friedman—the issue has yet to be decided.
If this strikes you as a lot of bother about mere words, you’re wrong. These words are part of a high-stakes battle to determine the outcome of the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For most observers, Friedman’s request demonstrated anew that he was a bad choice for ambassador since he has a record of support for the Jewish presence in the West Bank. But Friedman is correct that using the term “occupied” isn’t neutral. It backs up the Palestinian narrative that Israelis are alien colonists in territories where only Arabs should have rights. Israel’s position is that the ultimate disposition of the West Bank or, to use the biblical as well as geographic term that was applied to the area before 1949, “Judea and Samaria,” is a matter of dispute in which both sides have a legitimate argument. To call the territories Judea and Samaria is also a political statement, just like “occupied territories,” that indicates siding with the idea that Israelis have a right to be there.
But the use of words as weapons can lead to a muddle. “West Bank” is itself geographic nonsense. It is a relic of the illegal Jordanian occupation of this area as well as the Old City of Jerusalem from 1949-1967. At that time, the Hashemite kingdom had two “banks,” with an East—the area currently known as Jordan—as well as the West, which was taken by Israel during the Six-Day War.
Although Gaza functions as an independent Palestinian Hamas terror state, and much of the territory as well as most of the Arab population of the West Bank is governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA), the fact is Palestinians do consider themselves “occupied” by Israel since it exercises security control over the area. Many Israelis also want to rid themselves of that burden, which brings their troops into contact with Palestinians in a way that further embitters both sides.
Only a minority of Israelis supports the settlement movement that wishes to hold on to all of the West Bank forever. A majority of Israelis would probably embrace a two-state solution that would mean giving up many but not all of the settlements. But after the last 25 years, during which the Jewish state has repeatedly traded land and gotten more terror instead of peace, a cross-party consensus now exists that deems further withdrawals foolhardy until the Palestinians give up a political culture rooted in hatred and rejectionism.
“Occupation” isn’t the only semantic battle. Critics of President Trump’s statement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital dismissed it as mere words since the U.S. embassy isn’t being moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem anytime soon. Trump’s statement didn’t preclude a two state solution or a re-division of Jerusalem in order for part of it to serve as the Palestinians’ capital. Far from demonstrating U.S. favoritism to Israel, his was actually a neutral stance that acknowledged at least some of the city belongs to Israel. It is those who insist on “occupied” and in denying recognition of Jerusalem who are the ones showing favoritism, though not to Israel.
PA leader Mahmoud Abbas responded to Trump by denying that Jews have rights over any of Jerusalem. Though at times Abbas has spoken in support for peace, this stand reaffirmed the steady stream of PA propaganda that denies the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn. When push comes to shove, even Palestinian moderates still think of all of Israel, and not just the West Bank and Jerusalem, as “occupied” territory. That’s not just symbolism or semantics. That’s a prescription for endless conflict.
Seen in that light, what Trump and Friedman have said doesn’t seem quite as outrageous as their detractors assert. Until the Palestinians are ready to concede that their century-old war on Zionism has been lost, the debate over whether the West Bank is disputed or occupied will be moot. As long as they think all land under Jewish control on either side of the 1967 lines is occupied, peace will remain a purely academic concept no matter which words are used.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.