Conventional wisdom holds that Israel's international standing is directly related to its willingness to move toward peace with the Palestinians. Yet in recent years, despite previously unimaginable concessions, its international standing, far from improving, has hit an all-time low.
Consider some of the past few years' developments:
It has become acceptable in academic and media circles to question whether Israel even has a right to exist. Yet 13 years ago, at the height of the "occupation" - before Israel had recognized the PLO, transferred land to the Palestinian Authority or evacuated a single settlement - such discourse was considered beyond the pale.
It has become increasingly common to speak of Israel as an "apartheid state." That, too, would have been unthinkable 13 years ago.
Decisions to boycott and/or divest from Israel - virtually unknown 13 years ago outside the Arab world - are now commonplace in the West. Several churches, for instance, have decided to divest from Israel; and in the last two weeks alone, both the largest British lecturers' association and a leading Canadian union voted to boycott Israel.
Most Europeans, according to polls, consider Israel the leading threat to world peace. That, too, is a new development.
SO WHY have years of Israeli concessions produced not acclaim, but unprecedented international opprobrium? The answer is twofold. One part relates to the general public, and the other to a small but influential group of opinion leaders. I will discuss the first now, and the second next week.
Among the general public, the growing view of Israel as a pariah would be impossible had Israeli (and international Jewish) leaders not abandoned one simple tenet that all of them maintained prior to the 1993 Oslo Accords: that Israel has a valid claim to the West Bank and Gaza.
This claim does not necessitate Israel's retention of these areas; countries throughout history have occasionally ceded land to secure peace agreements. But only if Israel has a valid claim to the territories can giving them up be a "painful concession" that merits reward by the international community. If Israel has no claim, it is merely a thief. And no one would admire, much less compensate, a thief for the "painful concession" of returning some, though not all, of his ill-gotten gains - or for offering to return some, but again not all, of the remainder in exchange for sufficient reward. On the contrary: The thief deserves opprobrium, boycotts and divestment.
Indeed, if Israel has no claim to this land, even its seemingly unassailable demand that the Palestinians end terror in exchange for Israel's withdrawal loses validity. Israel can reasonably refuse to cede land to which it has a valid claim without receiving peace in exchange. But if the land belongs to the Palestinians, then Palestinian violence, ostensibly aimed at retrieving their stolen property, becomes understandable - and so does their claim that Israel has no right to impose conditions on its return.
THIS, HOWEVER, is precisely the picture that Israeli (and international Jewish) leaders have painted for the past 13 years. No Israeli leader talks any longer about Israel's right to the territories; instead, they talk about the Palestinians' "right" to statehood and the need to end "the occupation." But if the Palestinians have a "right" to a state on this land, it must belong to them; similarly, if Israel is "occupying" the Palestinians, the land must be theirs. That is what "right" and "occupation" mean.
Then, as if this were not bad enough, the unilateral withdrawal craze compounded the problem.
Until three years ago, Israel deemed uprooting settlements a national and personal tragedy - a painful (and expensive) move that merited sympathy and compensation. And the human portion of this tragedy - tens of thousands of people thrown out of their homes - would arguably be undiminished even if the territories were stolen Palestinian land. But now, two successive Israeli leaders have declared that far from being a tragedy, uprooting settlements is an Israeli interest, because they constitute a demographic and security burden. And if dismantling settlements serves Israel's interests, how can this possibly constitute a "painful concession" that merits either sympathy or compensation?
THUS IF Israel is to have any hope of reversing the rising tide of worldwide antipathy, it must start by reiterating the basic truths that have disappeared from its discourse over the last 13 years: that Israel has a valid claim to this land, and that ceding this claim is not an Israeli "interest," but a wrenching move conceivable only in exchange for suitable recompense.
The case, briefly, is as follows:
First, this is the historic Jewish homeland: Jerusalem and Hebron, not Tel Aviv and Haifa, were the heart of the biblical Jewish kingdom. This is vital, because the fact that this was our historic homeland is what justifies establishing a modern Jewish state here at all. Otherwise, we are indeed mere foreign interlopers.
Second, this land was unequivocally allotted to the future Jewish state by the 1922 League of Nations Mandate, which was never legally superseded. The 1947 UN partition plan was no more than a non-binding "recommendation" (the plan's own language) - as are all General Assembly (as opposed to Security Council) resolutions. Thus once the Arabs rejected the plan, it had no more validity than any other unsigned deal. (Were this not true, incidentally, much of pre-1967 Israel would also constitute "occupied Arab land.")
Third, no sovereign state ever replaced the Mandate on this territory. Jordan and Egypt conquered the West Bank and Gaza, respectively, in 1948, but neither conquest ever received international recognition. Legally, the territories remained stateless lands whose ownership was disputed. The only change that has occurred since is that the Palestinians have replaced Egypt and Jordan as the Arab claimants.
And finally, Israel acquired these lands not in a war of conquest, but in a defensive war.
At this late date, reversing the international perception of Israel as a thief rather than a legitimate claimant will be a Herculean task. But unless Israel makes the effort, it will increasingly be treated as a criminal rather than a seeker of peace.