t has been 100 years since the Balfour Declaration — issued by the British government on November 2, 1917 — offered the first international recognition of Jewish national aspirations. In many ways, its importance is obvious: it encouraged some 400,000 European Jews to emigrate to Palestine in the years 1917-1940, and made it possible to lay the groundwork for the state of Israel.
But there is another significance that has not been fully recognized among modern historians, even though it tells us more about the current obstacles to peace than any of the usual explanations. I am speaking of the politico-philosophical precedent set by the Balfour Declaration regarding national identity, land ownership, self determination and the notion of “indigenous people.”
On the surface, the declaration’s text touches on none of these issues. Known as “history’s most famous letter,” this 67-word text actually reads like a holiday greeting card: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice that civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
A close examination, however, reveals two asymmetries which, by today’s standards, would probably evoke bitter objections. First, the words “people” and “national” are attached to Jews, not to the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine, who are referred to as “communities.” Second, the non-Jewish communities are assured “civil and religious” rights, not national rights, let alone a “national home.”
At the Camp David talks in July, 2000 hosted by President Clinton, Yasser Arafat rejected the proposals for a final status agreement put forward by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and offering Arafat virtually all the territories beyond the pre-1967 armistice lines. He rejected as well Clinton’s suggested amendments to Barak’s offer. Nor did Arafat submit any alternative proposals.
The reason for Arafat’s tack was not difficult to discern for anyone who had been paying attention to what the Palestinian leader had been saying and doing since the inception of the Oslo Accords in 1993. It was not that he was unwilling to take control of more territory and add to the forty percent of the West Bank and most of Gaza already handed him by Israel. Rather, the problem for Arafat was that the Camp David talks were cast as “end of conflict” negotiations. It was understood that any territorial agreement would be accompanied by Arafat signing away all further Palestinian claims against Israel, and this was something Arafat had no intention of doing.
Arafat had made clear his goals for the Oslo process at its very inception. On the night of the signing of the initial Oslo agreements on the White House lawn in September, 1993, he was on Jordanian television from Washington explaining to his fellow Palestinians and to the wider Arab world that Oslo was the first phase of the Palestine National Council’s 1974 program. This was a reference to the so-called Plan of Phases, according to which the Palestine Liberation Organization would acquire whatever territory it could gain by negotiations, then use that land as a base for pursuing its ultimate goal of Israel’s destruction. Arafat made at least a dozen references to this perception of Oslo within a month of that broadcast, and he and his associates referred to it many times thereafter. Once established in Gaza in July, 1994, Arafat also became involved in promoting the increased terror to which Israel was subjected in the ensuing months.
In the wake of abandoning Camp David, Arafat undertook a two-pronged strategy to advance his objectives. He unleashed a still more intense, indeed unprecedented, terror war against Israel, both to weaken Israeli resolve and, potentially, to win world sympathy as Israel’s response, against assailants imbedded within the Palestinian civilian population, would inevitably – he anticipated – cause large-scale civilian casualties.
He also undertook a diplomatic campaign to win international, particularly European, support for recognition of all lands beyond the pre-1967 lines as “Palestine”; in effect, granting it all to the Palestinians without the bilateral negotiations and agreements called for in the Oslo accords and without the Palestinians having to foreswear future, additional claims against Israel culminating ultimately in her dissolution.
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The death of former Israeli President Shimon Peres led to a wave of almost unanimous tributes. Representatives from 75 countries came to Jerusalem to attend the funeral. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas even left Ramallah for a few hours to show up.
Such a consensus could seem to be a sign of support for Israel, but it was something else entirely.
Those who honored the memory of Shimon Peres put aside the years he dedicated to creating Israel’s defense industry and to negotiating key arms deals with France, Germany and the United States. Those who honored the memory of Peres spoke only of the man who signed the Oslo Accords and who embodied the “peace process.” They then used the occasion to accuse Israel.
Barack Obama delivered a speech that could have resembled a mark of heartwarming friendship, until he evoked the “the unfinished business of peace talks.” A harsh and negative sentence followed, saying that “the Jewish people weren’t born to rule another people.” The next sentence implied that Israel is behaving like a slave-owner: “From the very first day we are against slaves and masters;” but it is clear to anyone in Israel that there is no such relationship even resembling that. His conclusion followed: “The Zionist idea will be best protected when Palestinians will have a state of their own.”
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If there is anything that perplexes good friends of Israel, it is the issue of settlements beyond the “Green Line” (a misleading term, as we shall see). In a familiar phenomenon, a foreign politician arrives in Jerusalem to make a speech that manifests genuine admiration of the State of Israel and its achievements, but proceeds to an equally genuine cry of distress over its settlement policies. Why? Because they are supposedly “illegal under international law.”
These friends, as we shall see, are making a widespread basic mistake. Because of the endless talk of a “two-state solution,” the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is viewed as if it had always been a war between two states. In fact, it began as a civil war under the British Mandate for Palestine and continued as such until at least the late 1980s. By that time, almost all the present settlements were already in existence. Consequently, the provisions of international law that should apply to them are those that pertain to civil wars, not to inter-state wars.
To start with, let us set aside some questions whose answer is relatively simple. First, the present Israeli occupation of lands acquired during the Six Day War of 1967 is not illegal per se, because it resulted from aggression by the neighboring states concerned. Hostilities with Egypt started when Egypt blockaded the Israeli port of Eilat, an act of aggression that was followed by Egypt’s demand for the removal of United Nations peacekeepers from the border between the two states (obviously in preparation for further acts of aggression). Hostilities with Jordan began with a Jordanian bombardment of the Israeli part of Jerusalem. As for Syria, it had for years been engaged in constant aggression by way of encroachments into Israeli territory and bombardment of Israeli villages from the Golan Heights. Moreover, a recent expert report (2012) of the International Committee of the Red Cross emphasized that International Humanitarian Law “did not set any limits to the time span of an occupation” (see p. 72); rather, the longer the occupation lasted, the more the “occupying power” was required to upgrade the infrastructure, etc., for the benefit of the inhabitants.
Second, the sale of goods produced in those Israeli settlements is not illegal in most of the world’s markets. In the European Union (EU), for example, it is legal under two conditions. One condition is obligatory: those goods do not enjoy the reductions in customs duties that pertain to free trade agreements between Israel and the EU, because these agreements apply explicitly to the area of pre-1967 Israel. The other condition is optional: the EU Commission issued guidelines in November 2015 on how to label such products. After a fuss, the Commission conceded that the individual European governments could decide whether and how to implement the guidelines, while emphasizing that such labeling is not a boycott and that the EU opposes any boycotts of Israel. (See here for a comprehensive discussion of the matter, also regarding other disputed territories.)
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France, with the support of the United States, is leading a new attempt at peace between Israel and the Palestinians, with the implied goal that an independent Palestinian state would be created — but what should we expect from such a state?
Although past behavior is not a perfect predictor of future behavior, it is a strong indicator of it, especially if no corrective action has been taken.Judea
When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared, “The dawn of freedom rises with the evacuation of the last Israeli soldier and settler.” Yet, instead of using that freedom to build a successful economy, Palestinians destroyed the greenhouses that the settlers had left, and terrorists launched rocket attacks against Israel. These attacks forced Israel to institute a naval blockade of Gaza, to limit the supply of weapons to terrorists.
The Oslo Accords signed by Israel and the Palestinians in the 1990s provided a transition period meant to lead to Palestinian statehood. However, instead of peaceful coexistence with Israel, the Palestinian leadership launched an assault that became known as the Second Intifada.
During the recent stabbing attacks by Palestinian terrorists, Abbas declared, “Each drop of blood that was spilled in Jerusalem is pure blood as long as it’s for the sake of Allah. Every shahid (martyr) will be in heaven and every wounded person will be rewarded, by Allah’s will.”
These violent actions and the incitement are not exceptions. They are part of a pattern of Arab denial of the Jews’ right to exist, which started well before Israel declared its independence, and that caused several wars and innumerable terrorist attacks against Israel.
The Palestinian Authority prevents and condemns terrorism
Many people have forgotten, but one of the principal reasons that Israel decided to recognize the PLO and engage in peace talks was because Yasser Arafat renounced the use of terrorism and other acts of violence. Sadly, peace has not been achieved primarily because terrorism has never ceased. Instead, during negotiations subsequent to the Oslo agreements, the Palestinians repeated their promise to end terror in an effort to extract additional concessions from Israel. This pattern has continued to the present day when Palestinians make new demands on Israel while, simultaneously, encouraging violence against Israelis.
Mahmoud Abbas refers to the latest wave of terrorism as a “peaceful, popular uprising,” which prompted columnist Bassam Tawil to ask, “What is peaceful and popular about stabbing an 80-year-old lady named Ruti Malka in Rishon Lezion, and a 70-year-old Jewish woman [in] Jerusalem.” Referring to the attackers who were killed during or after their assaults, Tawil says, Abbas wants to “deceive the world into believing that Israel’s mighty security forces killed these poor innocent terrorists who were merely part of a peaceful protest against those awful Israeli ‘occupiers.’” Tawil adds that Abbas “knows very well that the terrorists are ‘lone wolves’ whom he himself has whipped up to murder Jews for no other reason that that they are Jews.” 711
Any early-January look ahead to the year in international politics would be incomplete without acknowledging the boldest diplomatic move of the year just ended. That move came when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stole the spotlight from far more visible diplomats John Kerry, Mohammed Zarif and Sergey Lavrov by threatening unilateral withdrawal from the Oslo Accords. Speaking to the United Nations’ General Assembly on September 30, Abbas announced, “We cannot continue to be bound by these signed agreements.” His speech was met with skepticism, laughter and counter-threats, but also a serious question: “When did the Palestinian Authority ever adhere to the Oslo Accords?”
After its September 1970 (Black September) defeat in Jordan, the PLO was sent north, where it precipitated Lebanon’s downward spiral from Mediterranean vacation spot to war zone. After their defeat in 1982 by Israeli forces, PLO leaders were mercifully allowed to leave Lebanon for Tunisia, where they remained in exile for over a decade.
The series of agreements collectively known as the Oslo Accords allowed the exiled PLO leaders to return from Tunisia and conferred legitimacy upon them as ministers of the Palestinian Authority. Their promise of a new moderation was rewarded with billions of dollars and euros from the “International Community.” In return for money, recognition as diplomats and territory, PLO leaders agreed to refrain from terrorism against Israel and to crack down on Hamas and other Islamic terrorists operating from the newly-sovereign PA-administered territories. They did neither. In fact, terrorism against Israelis by Palestinians increased after Oslo.
The Greek Parliament, on December 22, 2015, voted unanimously on a motion calling on Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to recognize the “State of Palestine.”
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, who was on an official visit to Athens, took the opportunity to say that the PA would no longer accept being called by any other name, and that passports with “State of Palestine” would be issued with this name.
The Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel, Tzipi Hotevely, responded by saying that Mahmoud Abbas was following a “flawed path that will lead him nowhere.” Israel’s former Ambassador to Canada, Alan Baker, in a report for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, noted that this was a “clear and flagrant violation of the Oslo agreements.”
Abbas may well have chosen a “flawed path,” but he seems to be going forward with it, doubtless hoping to increase the number of countries that recognize the non-existent “State of Palestine.”
Abbas also continues to violate the once much-trumpeted Oslo Accords — but they were violated from the start. They effectively did not even exist. They were based on an illusion, and based on lies.