“From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free!” You’ve doubtless heard that chant many times from supporters of what is called the “Palestinian cause.” The river is the Jordan. The sea is the Mediterranean. But what does “free” mean?
Hamas rules Gaza with an iron fist. To claim that the Palestinian Authority guarantees freedom in the West Bank would be ludicrous.
The only other land between the river and the sea is Israel, by far the freest country in the Middle East. So what the chanters must have in mind is that Israel should be free of Israelis, or rather of Jewish Israelis.
This possibility has been offered on several occasions. Each time, Palestinian leaders have made clear that while they want a state of their own, acknowledging that the Jewish people also have a right to self-determination is a price they are unwilling to pay.
A little history is essential. In 1923, the British transformed about 75 percent of what was previously Turkish-ruled Palestine into what is today the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. In 1947, a U.N. partition plan proposed dividing what remained into two states, one Arab, one Jewish. The Arab state would contain Judea and Samaria, heart of the ancient Jewish homeland which, despite multiple slaughters and expulsions, was never entirely Judenrein.
Palestine’s Jewish community agreed. Palestine’s Arab Muslim community (which did not yet self-identify as Palestinians) said no.
Bands of Palestinian Arabs immediately attacked Palestinian Jews. Then, 72 years ago last week, three events took place almost simultaneously: The British departed Palestine, Israelis declared independence, and the armies of Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq—themselves European creations carved from the defeated Ottoman empire and caliphate— attempted to erase the re-born Jewish state from the map.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new coalition government, sworn in Sunday, now face a daunting decision. After decades of failed Palestinian-Israeli “peace processes,” the Trump administration has indicated that it would not object if Israelis were to extend sovereignty to parts of the West Bank.
“Annexation” is the term frequently used. But that’s imprecise because, as international legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich has noted, annexation means taking over “territory that is under the sovereignty of another country.” The West Bank is not that.
In 1948, after Britain’s departure, Jordan used military force to seize Judea and Samaria, on the west bank of the Jordan River. Jordan proceeded to “cleanse” these territories of their Jewish inhabitants, and rename them.
In 1967, Israelis fought a second, defensive war against its Arab neighbors. In the process, they took the West Bank from Jordan, as well as Gaza from Egypt—both territories from which they had been attacked. Israelis withdrew from Gaza in 2005 in the hope of promoting peace. You know how that worked out.
The Trump administration has conveyed to Israelis that any redrawing of the map must be consistent with the White House peace plan, which provides a path to Palestinian statehood. That path must remain on the table for at least four years, awaiting a Palestinian leader who will return to the table and negotiate.
Under the scenario the Israelis are contemplating, a future Palestinian state would rule more territory than the Palestinian Authority does now. No population centers would move from Palestinian Authority control to Israeli control.
However, less land would be left for a future Palestinian state than Israeli leaders offered to Palestinian leaders at Camp David in 2000, Taba in 2001 and Jerusalem in 2008. Where is it written that rejecting Israeli concessions will always lead to more concessions, even absent reciprocal concessions? Would it not be helpful to disabuse Palestinians of the belief that time is on the side of the rejectionists?
Israelis are calculating a complicated risk/benefit ratio. On one hand, drawing permanent—and defensible—borders would clarify what Israelis will and will not give up in exchange for an agreement, however far off that may be, to end the conflict.
On the other hand, doing so will spark anger, not just from Israel’s sworn enemies, but also from Arab Gulf states that have been increasingly friendly in recent years, as well as from Egypt and Jordan, both of which have signed peace treaties with Israel. Some European countries will punish Israel economically, or at least try. Calls by American Israel-haters for anti-Jewish boycotts (also a German practice of the 1930s) will receive more media attention.
Is there a middle way? Israelis could apply sovereignty to the major settlements, long-established communities that will not be rendered Jew-free under any conceivable deal. But the legal status of other territories, in particular the strategic Jordan Valley along the border with the Hashemite Kingdom, could be left unchanged, at least for now.
American friends may advise, but it is for Israelis to decide how best to defend themselves and their children from enemies who regard the “Palestinian cause” not as the achievable dream of freedom and statehood, but as the extermination of a small nation attempting to live peaceably in a corner of its ancestral homeland.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.
This article was first published by The Washington Times.