Letter from America: On using the word ‘Occupation’

It is a clear statement, still showing the support for and belief in the two-state solution.

Cornel West speaks at a rally for Bernie Sanders (photo credit: REUTERS)
Cornel West speaks at a rally for Bernie Sanders
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At their recently completed hearings and deliberations the Democratic Platform Committee came up with this statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “We will continue to work toward a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiated directly by the parties that guarantees Israel’s future as a secure and democratic Jewish state with recognized borders and provides the Palestinians with independence, sovereignty, and dignity. While Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations, it should remain the capital of Israel, an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.”
It is a clear statement, still showing the support for and belief in the two-state solution.
The paragraph then goes on to say, “Israelis deserve security, recognition, and a normal life free from terror and incitement.” In light of the horrible murder last week of 13-year-old Hallel Ariel in her bed that line may be the most important to most Israelis.
The statement closes also with an important line for Palestinians: “Palestinians should be free to govern themselves in their own viable state, in peace and dignity.”
Implied throughout the statement is that the occupation needs to end, and yet the word was never used. Bernie Sanders’s representatives on the committee tried to have the word “occupation” included, but to no avail. There can be no denying that Israel has continued to occupy certain territories since they were captured 50 years ago next June. (Israel returned the majority of them to Egypt when both countries signed their peace treaty of 1979). The question that needs to be asked is why was the Democratic Party unable to use the word when addressing the West Bank? For one the word “occupation” is a loaded word. It is usually associated with an aggressive action by one country against another.
In the case of the West Bank most people forget that Israel told Jordan in 1967 that it had no desire/ intention for a fight with Hashemite Kingdom and the taking of the West Bank. (Forgotten, too, is that from 1948 to 1967 only two countries, Pakistan and England, recognized the occupation of the West Bank by Jordan, as even then it was supposed to be for the Palestinians).
Unfortunately in 1967 Jordan was duped by its Arab allies and attacked Israel, and in defending itself Israel captured the West Bank.
The response of the Arab world at that time was the famous “three nos”: no recognition, no negotiation, no peace. In many ways with that response the fate of the West Bank was sealed, as Israel then gave itself a green light to the building of settlements, roads and other infrastructure.
Fortunately the three nos were replaced by the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which does deserve a more serious response from Israel.
One can argue that “occupation” is accurate, but there are nuances, remembered and forgotten, that some would argue complicate its usage.
The US response to the occupation from the very beginning was the famous UN Resolution 242 written by Eugene Rostow. While it does not use the word occupation it clearly talks of “withdrawal” of Israeli forces from territories which implies an ending of the occupation.
The resolution is also known for its missing “the” when referring to “territories,” allowing for maneuverability of final borders.
Resolution 242 has been the foundation of all of US policy toward the conflict ever since. (On the back of Eugene Rostow’s tombstone in Peru, Vermont are carved the numbers 242). While the resolution does not use the word occupation it is clearly implied and has been used by American administrations.
In January 2008 president Bush stated, “There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. An agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people.”
And in March 2013 President Barack Obama said, “The Palestinian people deserve an end to occupation and the daily indignities that come with it.” Even prime minister Ariel Sharon used the word, in 2003, when he commented,“ You can not like the word, but what is happening is an occupation – to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation. I believe that is a terrible thing for Israel and for the Palestinians.”
Which brings us back to the question of why the Democratic Platform didn’t use the word. The process was controlled by the Democratic Party leadership and Hillary Clinton. This is made more interesting in light of the fact that Clinton used the word herself, echoing Obama and Sharon, when she wrote in her memoir as Secretary of State Hard Choices, “When we left the city and visited Jericho, in the West Bank, I got my first glimpse of life under occupation for Palestinians, who were denied the dignity and self-determination that Americans take for granted.”
The election of Hillary Clinton, as the first woman president, is exciting to anticipate, with the hope of a new way of leadership. Unfortunately her choice to avoid the word occupation showed not forward thinking, but backwards and even hypocritical thinking based on her previous use of the word.
The committee also failed to mention the important, and until now under-utilized role of civil society in the peace process. Those peace assets on the ground finally got the attention they deserve in the report the Middle East Quartet released the other week. It echoes President Reuven Rivlin’s call for “creating an infrastructure for trust.” One can only hope that should she be elected the 45th president of the United States Hillary Clinton will choose creative and audacious thinking when it comes to creating the right conditions for the establishment of two states.
The author teaches conflict resolution at Bennington College.