It so happens that this year is the 100th anniversary of the San Remo Conference, where the victorious Allied powers from World War I divided the Ottoman Empire and proposed Mandates for the former territories of Ottoman Asia. The territory that was to become British Mandatory Palestine was designated as a future Jewish national home already then. British diplomacy in 1920 set the stage for not only the emergence of Israel in 1948, but also the entire system of Arab states.
This history is pertinent to the debate that has emerged about Israel retaining parts of the West Bank this year in fulfillment of the Trump plan. It is commonly referred to as “annexation” and states have pointed out that they oppose the annexation of someone else’s territory. The statute of the International Criminal Court in fact defines as one of the acts that constitutes the crime of aggression specifically as the annexation of the territory of another state.
So is it correct to label Israeli actions with respect to the West Bank “annexation?” Can you annex territory that has already been designated as yours?
Indeed, annexation resulting from aggression is unacceptable. The Turkish invasion of Cyprus was an act of aggression. The Russian invasion of Crimea was an act of aggression. Israel in the West Bank is an entirely different story.
In addition to the designation of these territories as part of the Jewish national home, one must remember that the West Bank was captured by Israel in a war of self-defense in 1967. That makes all the difference. The great British authority on international law, Sir Elihu Lauterpacht, drew a distinction between unlawful territorial change by an aggressor and lawful territorial change in response to an act of aggression.
It would be more correct not to use the term “annexation” but rather “the application of Israeli law to parts of the West Bank.”
The idea that the Jewish national home applied there was backed by much of the international community from San Remo onwards. Even Article 80 of the United Nations Charter established that national rights from the period of the League of Nations carried over to the newly established United Nations.
In 1920 British leadership under Prime Minister Lloyd George was pivotal in protecting Jewish national rights. Today, 100 years later, British leadership should follow that example.
Thus, the foundations of Jewish legal rights established through San Remo were preserved for the future.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.