Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israeli War of Independence

The Israeli “Land Grab” and Hopes for Peace

Those intransigent Israelis have done it again. Just when the world was hoping for gestures of peace, they’ve done something making the two-state solution with the Palestinians harder to implement. Or so most of the world is claiming today after Israel’s government declared that 988 acres of vacant land in the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem is “state land” and therefore might be used for development. But the diplomatic condemnation raining down on the Israelis today is illogical and has very little to do with the terms of what a real peace deal might look like. If the Palestinians really wanted peace, this move wouldn’t affect it in the least.

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Those intransigent Israelis have done it again. Just when the world was hoping for gestures of peace, they’ve done something making the two-state solution with the Palestinians harder to implement. Or so most of the world is claiming today after Israel’s government declared that 988 acres of vacant land in the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem is “state land” and therefore might be used for development. But the diplomatic condemnation raining down on the Israelis today is illogical and has very little to do with the terms of what a real peace deal might look like. If the Palestinians really wanted peace, this move wouldn’t affect it in the least.

As the New York Times reported today, the seizure of the vacant land is being considered proof that the Netanyahu government doesn’t want peace. It was condemned by the Palestinian Authority, the United Kingdom, and even criticized by Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. But the way the story is being presented in the mainstream press is highly misleading.

The New York Times simply refers to the land in its headline as “West Bank Land Near Bethlehem.” That’s true in that the place is in the area taken by Israel in June 1967 and it is near the city of Bethlehem. But savvy readers should have picked up on the mention in the story of the fact that it is “in” a settlement bloc. Though the Peace Now organization condemned the move as one that would “dramatically change the reality” in the area, since it is already inside an area that is heavily populated by Jews and claimed by the Jewish state, it’s hard to see how anything that happens inside it would affect the future of other parts of the West Bank which might theoretically be conceded to the Palestinians as part of an independent state.

But this isn’t just any settlement bloc; it’s Gush Etzion. That may not mean much to Americans, let alone Europeans who can be counted on to condemn anything the Israelis do, but it does put the matter of whether this decision actually affects possible peace negotiations in perspective.

It needs to be remembered that most peace advocates keep telling us that the terms of peace between Israel and the Palestinians are well known and that all that is needed is the will to implement them rather than more discussions about the details. But among those terms is the concept of territorial swaps that was endorsed by President Obama and even approved by the Palestinian participants in the Geneva initiatives. The swaps would allow Israel to keep the blocs of settlements—most of which are adjacent to the 1967 lines—in exchange for other territory to be given to the Palestinians. While there is some dispute as to which blocs are part of this consensus, there is no doubt that one of them is the Etzion bloc.

There are two reasons for the assumption that Gush Etzion stays inside of Israel even if a Palestinian state is created in the West Bank.

One is that it is just south of Jerusalem and requires no great manipulation of the map. It guards the southern flank of Israel’s capital and the area containing 22 Jewish communities with over 70,000 living there can be retained while leaving Bethlehem inside a putative Palestinian state.

But this land is also significant because, contrary to the narrative in which Jews are portrayed as “stealing” Arab land, Gush Etzion was actually populated and owned by Jews not only prior to 1967 but also prior to Israel’s War of Independence. Gush Etzion was a bloc of Jewish settlements that was overrun by Jordanian army units and local Palestinians after a bitterly contested siege. Its inhabitants were either massacred or taken prisoner and their homes and farms destroyed. As such, it was the first land to be reclaimed for Jewish settlement after the 1967 war put it back in Israeli hands.

Let’s be clear about this. Neither the ownership nor the future of Gush Etzion is up for debate in any peace talks. In every peace plan, whether put forward by Israel’s government or its left-wing opponents, the bloc remains part of Israel, a reality that most sensible Palestinians accept.

The legal dispute about whether empty land can be converted to state use for development or settlement or if it is actually the property of neighboring Arab villages is one that will play itself out in Israel’s courts. Given the scrupulous manner with which Israel’s independent judiciary has handled such cases in the past, if the local Arabs can prove their dubious assertions of ownership, the land will be theirs.

But no matter who wins that case, it won’t affect the territory of a Palestinian state since whether individual Arabs own these lots or Jews won’t make a difference in peace talks. If Jews wind up living there it won’t impact the future borders of a Palestinian state any more than the fact that Arabs are building on lots in Bethlehem.

Why then is the Gush Etzion land decision being represented as such a blow to a peace process that was already torpedoed earlier this year by the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation fact and rendered even more unlikely by the terrorist war of attrition launched by Hamas this summer?

The reason is fairly obvious. The Palestinians and their cheerleaders aren’t really interested in negotiating peace and drawing lines that could effectively divide the land even on terms favorable to their side. The Obama-endorsed land swaps that would include Gush Etzion or any other possible provisions to achieve peace are irrelevant to their goals because it is still impossible for Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

That’s a fact that pro-peace Israelis like Livni and others here in the United States need to understand. Livni didn’t condemn the Etzion announcement because she believes it actually could impact the terms of a peace deal. She knows it won’t. Rather, she thinks that the move will draw attention to the area and encourage Arabs and foreign governments to advocate for Israel to give up even this land that Jews originally owned. But whether or not attention is drawn to the bloc, the Palestinians are no more willing to let the Jews keep it than they are to let them keep any other part of the West Bank or those lands that were inside the pre-67 lines.

Livni, like some other Israelis, is also uncomfortable with the idea that the motivation for this decision is to send a message to the Arabs about terrorism. Giving more land for Jewish settlement in this area may also be a response to the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers that set off the war with Hamas since the trio were taken and killed in this very area. Sending such a message is a policy that can be debated, but whether or not it is wise or appropriate has nothing to do with the terms of peace.

The Gush Etzion announcement is no land grab. It concerns vacant lots inside an area that will always be kept as part of Israel. But the anger that it generated does send a signal to Israel that the Palestinians aren’t going to accept their continued presence in any part of the country. That’s bad news for peace but remedying it will require a shift toward acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy among the Palestinians, not the surrender of Jewish communities.

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From Lydda to Gaza

“Disproportion speaks massacre, not ‘battle.'” Who wrote that just last week about Israel’s conduct vis-à-vis the Palestinians?

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“Disproportion speaks massacre, not ‘battle.'” Who wrote that just last week about Israel’s conduct vis-à-vis the Palestinians?

I won’t keep you in suspense. It was Israeli historian Benny Morris, replying to my critique (at Mosaic Magazine) of Ari Shavit’s treatment of the Lydda “massacre” of July 12, 1948, in Shavit’s book My Promised Land. Shavit declined to respond to me, but Morris took up the gauntlet last week. He wishes a pox on Shavit’s house and mine, for different reasons. He accuses Shavit of turning Lydda into more than it was, and he accuses me of “effectively denying” that there was “a massacre, albeit a provoked one.” Perhaps I do, although (unlike Shavit and Morris) I don’t claim to know exactly what happened.

I hadn’t set out to contest both Shavit and Morris, but since Shavit relies on Morris, their narratives are intertwined, and it’s just as well. Mosaic Magazine today runs my reply to Morris’s response. Not only do I question the credibility of his historical account, I also make this more general observation:

On Morris’s principle, every occasion on which Israel exacts a numerically “disproportionate” cost in the lives of others—as it often must do, if it is to deter and defeat its enemies—constitutes evidence of massacre; to sustain its very existence, Israel must massacre again and again, decade after decade…. Israel thus can never be legitimate; it is a perpetual war crime, on an ever-larger scale. So saith the “disproportion.”

Unfortunately, it’s a question that’s timely, on the morrow of a day when Israel lost thirteen soldiers in battle, and Palestinians are again claiming that Israel has committed a “massacre.” Read my response to Morris here.

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The Other Refugees and the Path to Peace

Today Canada’s foreign minister proved once again why the Great White North is one of the world’s outliers with regard to the Middle East. Foreign Minister John Baird said that the Canadian government stated that the fate of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries should be both recognized and taken into account in discussions about Middle East peace. The statement followed Canada’s parliament adopting a report on the subject and though Baird was careful to say that he didn’t want the issue to become a point of contention in the talks between Israel and the Palestinians sponsored by the United States, the mere raising of the topic is enough to cause some of Israel’s critics to claim the Canadians are trying to sabotage the negotiations. While the Israelis have repeatedly raised the issue of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled or were forced to flee their homes throughout the Arab world in the months and years following Israel’s birth in 1948, the Palestinians not only refuse to discuss the matter, they regard it as a distraction from the “nakba”—or disaster, as they refer to Israel’s creation. But in doing so they make it plain that this issue is central to understanding why peace has eluded the region.

The argument about competing sets of refugees is not an abstract historical puzzle. To even talk about Jewish refugees with their own history of suffering undermines the narrative that the only result of Israel’s War of Independence was the dispossession of a Palestinian refugee population whose descendants continue to demand a “right of return” to the homes they left 66 years ago. For the same reason that the Palestinian Authority refuses absolutely to recognize that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, so, too, do they and their supporters close their ears to any discussion about Jewish refugees. Palestinians fear that both subjects undermine their sense of themselves as victims who must be compensated by the world. But while they believe that any diminution of that victimhood, either to recognize the claims of other refugees or the state where most of dispossessed Jews found a home, would deprive them of their identity as a people, the truth is just the opposite. Discarding this mindset is the only way that they—or the Israelis—will ever find peace.

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Today Canada’s foreign minister proved once again why the Great White North is one of the world’s outliers with regard to the Middle East. Foreign Minister John Baird said that the Canadian government stated that the fate of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries should be both recognized and taken into account in discussions about Middle East peace. The statement followed Canada’s parliament adopting a report on the subject and though Baird was careful to say that he didn’t want the issue to become a point of contention in the talks between Israel and the Palestinians sponsored by the United States, the mere raising of the topic is enough to cause some of Israel’s critics to claim the Canadians are trying to sabotage the negotiations. While the Israelis have repeatedly raised the issue of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled or were forced to flee their homes throughout the Arab world in the months and years following Israel’s birth in 1948, the Palestinians not only refuse to discuss the matter, they regard it as a distraction from the “nakba”—or disaster, as they refer to Israel’s creation. But in doing so they make it plain that this issue is central to understanding why peace has eluded the region.

The argument about competing sets of refugees is not an abstract historical puzzle. To even talk about Jewish refugees with their own history of suffering undermines the narrative that the only result of Israel’s War of Independence was the dispossession of a Palestinian refugee population whose descendants continue to demand a “right of return” to the homes they left 66 years ago. For the same reason that the Palestinian Authority refuses absolutely to recognize that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, so, too, do they and their supporters close their ears to any discussion about Jewish refugees. Palestinians fear that both subjects undermine their sense of themselves as victims who must be compensated by the world. But while they believe that any diminution of that victimhood, either to recognize the claims of other refugees or the state where most of dispossessed Jews found a home, would deprive them of their identity as a people, the truth is just the opposite. Discarding this mindset is the only way that they—or the Israelis—will ever find peace.

The Canadian report will undoubtedly be ignored by the international press that tends to treat any mention of Jewish refugees as somehow an illustration of Israel’s lack of contrition about the suffering of the Palestinians. But the more that one learns about the topic, the easier it is to understand that there was no monopoly on suffering in this conflict. Just as hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled or, in a few cases, were told to leave their homes in the former British Mandate for Palestine, almost an equal number of Jews throughout the Arab and Muslim world experienced the same fate.

The difference between the two populations was that the Jews were taken in and resettled by their brethren, either in the newborn state of Israel or in Western countries. Though their journeys and adjustment to their new homes was not always easy, none were allowed to languish in limbo. Today, they and their descendants in Israel or in the United States and other Western countries are members of successful communities where they enjoy equal rights.

By contrast, the Arabs who left the territory that would become the State of Israel were deliberately kept in camps to this day and denied any resettlement or citizenship in the countries where they found themselves. The reason for this was that they were useful props in the Arab world’s ongoing war to reverse the verdict of that war. Their future was held hostage to the struggle to destroy Israel, and the refugees and their numerous progeny have been kept apart and in squalor in order to further that effort. Their plight merits the sympathy of the world. So, too, does the way they have been exploited and abused by their own leaders and other Arab countries.

Unfortunately, many of those who wish the Palestinians well, including many Jews, have accommodated their nakba narrative demands and sought to pressure Israel to apologize for winning the war of survival in 1948. But the Palestinian decision to cling to this narrative of suffering rather than embracing one of nation building in the West Bank and Gaza, where Israel has repeatedly offered them an independent state, is the primary obstacle to peace. As Rick Richman noted earlier this week, the point of insisting on the so-called “right of return” is not really the refugees but to keep the war against Israel’s existence alive. Not until they realize that they were not the only ones who suffered and that the war that led to their dispossession was the result of their own unwillingness to compromise and share the land will the Palestinians be prepared to accept the current compromise that has been on the table from Israel for many years, and finally move on.

Far from harming the cause of peace, the best thing those who wish to promote a resolution of the Middle East conflict can do is to remind the Palestinians that they were not the only ones who lost their homes and that the Arab world has as much apologizing to do as the Israelis. If one group of refugees must be compensated, so must the other. Just as two states for two peoples is the only possible formula for peace, let the Palestinians recognize that they aren’t the only 1948 refugees. Until they do and acknowledge the legitimacy of a state for those Jewish refugees, peace will be impossible.

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