On 23 December 2016 the United Nations Security Council voted 14-0 (with the U.S. abstaining) to condemn Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as illegal and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. The passing of United Nations Security Council 2334 was unexpected, because similar resolutions in the past have been vetoed by the United States, which prides itself as a staunch ally of Israel. The decision by the United States to abstain from the vote is a reflection of President Barack Obama’s frustration with stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which he largely blames on the stance of Israel’s current right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government has accelerated approvals of settlements on Palestinian land and is widely seen as being insincere in its interest in negotiating a peace deal.
The passing of the resolution outraged Netanyahu, who withdrew ambassadors from New Zealand and Senegal who sponsored the resolution, and announced the cessation of funds to several United Nations organisations. The resolution was also heavily criticised by United States President-elect Donald Trump, and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop of Australia. However, Israel appears to be more isolated than ever. In this series of articles, I will examine the basis for Israel’s uncompromising attitude towards a settlement with Palestinians, breaking down the views of its defenders and evaluating the rationality of their positions.
Israel’s right to exist
When responding to a speech by US Secretary of State John Kerry following the UN resolution that was highly critical of Israel’s stance, Netanyahu responded that “This conflict has always been about Israel’s right to exist”. To understand this long-held view, it is important to review the history of Jewish-Palestinian relationships in the 20th century.
The issue of Israel’s right to exist harks back even before the foundation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, which followed the United Nations General Assembly adopting a Partition Plan for Mandatory Palestine that divided Palestine into two territories – one for the Palestinian Arabs who had long resided in the land, and one for Jews who had mostly migrated to the area following their persecution in Europe during the Second World War (with the exception of a few Jewish settlements, some of which had been there for several centuries).
The Palestinian region had been politically administered by the British under a League of Nations mandate (the League of Nations being the United Nations predecessor) following the defeat of Turkey in the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Britain had committed itself to the terms of the Balfour Declaration that sought to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In a memo, Arthur James Balfour (United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary) wrote: “The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”
The decision to grant a part of Palestine as Jewish state was never supported by the Arabs. The day following the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948, the armies of Egypt, Syria, Transjordan and Iraq invaded Israel. Many Arab residents fled during the conflict, which lasted a year before a ceasefire was reached. The ceasefire recognised an Armistice Demarcation Line which came to be known as the “Green Line”, a boundary that corresponded to the battlefront at the time and was considered temporary. Palestinians who had fled ended up in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Some of these camps continue to exist, and by UNRWA’s definition, there are currently over 5 million Palestinian refugees.
Today, most Arab countries have accepted Israel’s right to exist. Egypt was the first Arab state to recognise (albeit somewhat ambiguously) Israel’s right to exist, following a armistice signed after the Six Day War in 1967. Jordan was the next to follow. In 1988, Yasser Arafat declared that the Palestinians had accepted Israel’s right to exist. However the Palestinian Authority (PA) has never accepted the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. Furthermore, the increasing conciliation between the PA and Israel led to the emergence of Hamas (founded in 1987), which declared that Israel does not have a right to exist. Hamas currently exercises political authority over Gaza and, after conflict with the PA, is now part of a unity government with the PA. Since then, Hamas have publicly indicated that they would accept peace with Israel if Israel abides by the boundaries of the Green Line.
The issue about Israel’s right to exist is now, for all intent and purposes, merely an ideological issue, not a practical one. The Palestinians have accepted that peace with Israel, and therefore a defacto recognition of its right to exist (in peace), is acceptable if Israel respects the Green Line. The question of whether Palestinians and other nation-states accept the right of Israel to exist as a historical nation is an ideological one, and there is no reason why anyone should accept its right to exist if they believe that the nation-state of Israel was illegitimately created through the meddling of Western powers and Jewish Zionists. Is it fair to demand that Native Americans or Indigenous Australians accept the right of conquest by Europeans? Given the injustices wrought by colonialism and the fact that such acceptance is inconsequential to the peaceful co-existence of the people today in these nations, why would such an ideological requirement be imposed upon them?
As for recognition of the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, which is clearly an ideological demand, why would anyone seek to recognise a religious designation for a country in which many people of different faiths also reside? What would this mean for the 18% of Israelites who are Muslim (and potentially much more if the 5 million Palestinians are eventually resettled)? Would citizens of the United States accept the right of, say, Muslim immigrants to declare an Islamic State in the heart of America?
Given that the pragmatic importance of recognising the right of Israel to exist in a state of peace is no longer disputed (on condition that Israel observes its pre-1967 borders), then the matter is purely an ideological one and not one that should be forced upon others and used as justification for the ongoing violation of their rights to self-determination. Besides, what has recognition of Israel’s right to exist got to do with building settlements on Palestinian territory? Netanyahu’s main point is therefore not only ideological and unfair, it is irrelevant.
In the next article in this series, I will propose that the current Israeli government’s approach to settlements is based on a continuing Zionist view that all the land of Palestine is rightfully owned by the Jews as part of an ancient historical connection. Furthermore, I will contend that much of the support for Israel’s policies by nations such as the United States and Australia is based on a combination of Western racism towards Muslims, a sympathy towards Jewish persecution during World War II and non-sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, a moral panic and superficial understanding about terrorism, the influence of wealthy Jewish lobbies on these governments, and the uncritical acceptance by many Americans and Australians of Christian doctrines that accept Jewish claims propounded in the Old Testament as both relevant and authoritative.