Adapted from the remarks of Ambassador Dore Gold to the AJC Global Forum 2020 on June 15, 2020:
Why is the future of the West Bank (also known as Judea and Samaria) such a critical issue for Israel? Why does it engender debate, even strong debate, influencing even the language adopted for describing it?
In 1947, according to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, the area was called “the hill country of Samaria and Judea.” Jordan annexed the territory in 1950 and began to use the term “West Bank.” The battle over terminology reflects the stakes that were involved in this territorial dispute.
The first reason for the intensity of this dispute is the geo-strategic location of this territory. It is adjacent to Israel’s coastal plain, where 70 percent of our population and 80 percent of our industrial capacity are located. Moreover, it is only 40 miles wide at its maximal width. It would take a combat aircraft maybe three minutes to cross its airspace and attack Israel with little warning. Should the territory fall into hostile hands, it could pose a pressing threat to the State of Israel.
What were the reasons why this evolved into such an intense dispute, beyond the religious attachment of the parties to the land?
It was thought in the past that our territorial withdrawals would reduce the hostile intent of our adversaries, but we learned in the Gaza Disengagement in 2005 that withdrawal can actually increase the hostility on the other side. Just looking at the number of rocket launches from the Gaza Strip into Israel, they actually mushroomed in the year after we pulled out, shooting up from 179 to 946.
Now, what is the problem with the term “annexation” that is at the heart of the political debate today?
On July 10, 1967, Israel had just incorporated eastern Jerusalem into western Jerusalem. Pakistan drafted a resolution at the United Nations calling this “annexation.” Our foreign minister, Abba Eban, wrote to the U.N. secretary-general, saying that this language was “out of place.” He had a specific problem with the term “annexation,” preferring the “extension of Israeli law and jurisdiction” to eastern Jerusalem.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) defines “annexation” as “a unilateral act of a state through which it proclaims its sovereignty over the territory of another state” (emphasis added). But did the West Bank belong to “another state,” when only the United Kingdom and Pakistan recognized Jordanian sovereignty there?
According to the Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), annexation is a war crime. It is a subset of aggression. So I ask you: Should Israel agree to have itself placed in that context? The Soviet Union tried to have us branded as the aggressor in 1967 in the U.N. Security Council and then in the General Assembly, but it failed in both.
Back in 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank, it was plain as day that it was not an aggressor, but rather a victim of aggression and acting in self-defense.
Another fault in the current debate is the tendency to call this a “unilateral act.” This is an American plan in which both sides gain. We get 30 percent of the West Bank, the Palestinians get 70 percent. It is not a unilateral gain for Israel. It is ultimately a territorial compromise.
There are those who insist that Israel must pull out of every square inch of West Bank territory. These people never read U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 from November 1967, with its call for a withdrawal “from territories” and not “from the territories.” They are wrong and their interpretation has been opposed by all Israeli governments.
Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin strongly believed in Israel retaining territory including the Jordan Valley. He declared in the Knesset on Oct. 5, 1995, one month before he was assassinated: “The security border of the State of Israel will be located in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest sense of that term.”
He was very clear about Israel’s future boundaries: “The borders of the State of Israel, during the permanent solution, will be beyond the lines which existed before the Six-Day War. We will not return to the 4 June 1967 lines.”
Again, he supported the creation of a territorial compromise. This should become our new point of departure again today.
Dore Gold is the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and the current president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.