Every now and then, something as simple as a tweet is cause for reminder that – in life in general, but in this region in particular – context and history matter.
The tweet in question this week was by Gershon Baskin, founder of the Israel/ Palestine Center for Research and Information and self-proclaimed liberator of Gilad Schalit.
The tweet was simple: “When the world supports Palestine state recognition, it is also supporting Israel on 78% of the land between the River & the Sea.”
Well, that surely makes me feel better.
Somehow, I’d felt that when Stockholm, Paris, Dublin and others recognized “Palestine” (in quotes, because Palestine does not exist), it was to some degree an act hostile to Israel. After all, the leaders of “Palestine” do not recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and have insisted they never will. They insist on the refugees’ right of return, which would destroy Israel as a Jewish state, and at least publicly say they will never budge.
So yes, I’ll admit: When European capitals recognize a state that both does not exist and at the same time seeks to destroy Israel as a Jewish state, I’m troubled.
But now, I’m told, I’m supposed to feel better. Because these countries – as well as those that are likely to follow – are not in any way trying to harm Israel. In fact, such recognition of Palestine is actually “supporting Israel” on 78 percent of the land between the River and the Sea.
Aside from the tweet ignoring Palestine’s stance on Israel, it’s also worth noting what a small portion this 78% is of what was originally promised to the Jewish people. There may be nothing we can do about it, but we ought to be clear-eyed about what game the international community has long played, and continues to play.
In 1917, the Balfour Declaration declared: His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
There are many questions that can be asked about Balfour. Is a “national home” a state? How can the Jewish homeland be built without in any way affecting “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” and more? But for our purposes, one question reigns supreme: What is this Palestine where the Jewish home was to be built, and what were its borders? Balfour does not say.
But later British documents do add clarity. The Palestine Royal Commission of 1937 (commonly known as the Peel Commission) stated clearly that “the field in which the Jewish national home was to be established was understood at the time of the Balfour Declaration to be the whole of historic Palestine.”
That “whole” included, of course, Transjordan, known today as Jordan.
That didn’t stop the Peel Commission from reducing the size of a proposed Jewish state even further.
Thus, the land the British Empire promised the Jewish people was partitioned first in 1922, when 75% of “historic Palestine” was lopped off and used to create a country called Jordan.
Peel then proposed something even smaller.
Then, in 1947, when the UN voted on (a second) Partition, additional portions were excluded from a future Jewish state; the UN Special Committee on Palestine had decided to create yet a second Arab country on the land Balfour had intended for the Jews. (For example, the Peel Commission had suggested the Western Galilee be given to the Jewish state; the UNSCOP Partition Plan of 1947 gave the Western Galilee to the Arabs.) The map on which the UN General Assembly voted, on November 29, 1947, was one that gave the Jews less than one-eighth of what they had been promised by Balfour just 30 years earlier.
Lopping off land from the Jewish state is a long-standing tradition.
The only reason Israel was never forced to actually live inside the indefensible and unlivable borders of 1947 is that Arabs attacked Israel after the UN vote, and more vociferously after Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948. In the war the Arabs unleashed, Israel was able to take land – by force – that the UN had not promised it. The lines reached in 1949, the so-called Green Line, are not lines agreed to in any peace treaty. They are armistice lines: that’s just where the two exhausted parties chose to leave things when the fighting died down.
Israel then took more land in June 1967, in another war it did not seek. It took the West Bank from Jordan after pleading with King Hussein not to enter the fighting – a warning the king foolishly ignored. The international community has decided the territory which Israel took in 1967 must be returned.
Will it one day say the same thing about land Israel took between the UN vote of November 1947 and the end of the War of Independence in March 1949? Perhaps not. But who knows? The chessboard called the Middle East is very different than it was just a decade ago. Israel’s stock in the international community is lower than it has been in a long time, perhaps ever. The chill in American-Israel relations (denied by both parties but obviously very real) weakens Israel further. American Jews are increasingly frustrated with an Israel they see as making no overtures towards the Palestinians. Iran marches closer to a nuclear weapon, and Israel may well need the US (presumably with a very different president) to stop it.
All the protestations of some Israelis notwithstanding, Israel may indeed find itself pulling back from the Jordan River to something approximating the Green Line. Some Israelis will rejoice, others will mourn. The retreat might bring peace; infinitely more likely, it will not.
Whatever happens, though, we ought to at least understand what is happening.
Yes, Israel would be left with a whopping 78% of the land between the River and the Sea. But that’s a fraction of what the Jewish people was originally promised, and if the international community continues to insist that Israel give up territory captured in fighting, it may be much more than we are eventually left with.
Make no mistake. The European governments that recognized Palestine are not recognizing anything about Israel.
They’re just waiting for their next move on the chessboard. The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chair of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college. His latest book is Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul; he is now writing a concise history of the State of Israel.