by James Spencer
International relations are roiled as they have not been for a generation. Syria is ablaze, and conflicts may engulf its neighbors. Russia has seized the Crimea and raised concerns among the Baltic states. China is asserting claims in the South China Sea. After Brexit, the EU is looking somewhat fragile.
And then there’s the perennial issue of Israel-Palestine.
In 2013, Secretary Kerry brought Israel and Palestine together to thrash out a”final status agreement,” but without success. Since then, this chronic conflict has appeared briefly in the news, with an international conference in Paris in June and the recent Quartet Report. But for the most part the issue has been displaced from the media by more eye-catching events. The White House is reportedly working on a new push for Middle East peace by the end of Obama’s Presidency, possibly along the lines of the Arab Peace Initiative. The three key stumbling blocks are said to be borders, Jerusalem, and the right of return.
Except that one of those stumbling blocks does not actually exist.
The received wisdom is that the borders will be, with some adjustments, the1949 Armistice Lines,usually called the Green Line or the 1967 borders—even though the 1949 Armistice agreement specifically states that the lines “do not prejudice the rights, claims and positions of the parties with regard to the settlement of the Palestine Question.”. Both sides claim Jerusalem, with the Israelis expecting to designate the suburb of Abu Dis as the Palestinian “Jerusalem.”Meanwhile, Israel claims the Palestinian right of return under UN GAR 194 to be an unacceptable “demographic time-bomb,” as the inflow of millions of Palestinians would threaten the “Jewish and democratic” status of Israel.
Except that this “demographic time-bomb” is an illusion.
The “Right of Return” is a Zionist notion, whereby Jews from all around the world “return” to Israel and become Israeli citizens and play an active role in the politics of Israel. This idea has been transferred to Palestinians by Zionists who then reject it as a demographic threat to Israel. Instead, Zionists have suggested that a token number of Palestinians—10,000, for instance—would be allowed to return to Israel, while the rest would be compensated, thus “defusing” the problem. (Ironically, secular Jews might welcome several million moderate Palestinians to counter-balance the ever-increasing and increasingly intolerant Ultra-Orthodox Jews.)
However, the right being returned is not electoral rights, but property rights and enjoyment thereof. The ownership of property does not confer citizenship rights on the owner—thus there is no electoral issue, no “demographic time-bomb.” Indeed, if the electoral boycott by the Palestinian inhabitants of Jerusalem is anything to go by, even if returned Palestinians resident in Israel were granted electoral rights, they would take no part in Israeli politics. (They would, however, be Palestinian citizens and able to vote in Palestinian elections).
It might be a tricky challenge to address this restitution, but the international community already has several existing mechanisms that have assisted the recovery of stolen and seized property, such as the 1997 London Nazi Gold Conference, the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, the 2000 Stockholm Declaration, and the 2000 Vilnius Conference on Holocaust Era Looted Cultural Assets. The EU’s 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues noted the:
the importance of restituting communal and individual immovable property that belonged to the victims […], the Participating States urge that every effort be made to rectify the consequences of wrongful property seizures, such as confiscations, forced sales and sales under duress of property, which were part of the persecution of these innocent people and groups.
All that needs to happen is to extend the remit of these organizations to cover Palestinian assets as well.
This principle of property rights also removes the remaining stumbling blocks. Since property ownership is separate from sovereignty and does not confer electoral rights on the resident, all Jewish residents in Palestine who can show lawful title are free to enjoy their property rights (while voting in Israeli elections).Thus the borders can run along the 1949 Armistice line with no adjustments needed for the settlements.
There is another, important reason for discouraging the seizure of ‘historic’ land by force: it’s spreading. Iraq invaded Kuwait on historical grounds; Russia seized and annexed the Crimea on an historical claim; now China lays claim to most of the South China Sea on the basis of its “historical rights”. China will likely denounce the unfavorable Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in part by “reminding its detractors of the many precedents that were set by other great powers over the years, the United States chief among them.”
It’s time to reinforce international law lest the law of the jungle return.
James Spencer is a retired infantry commander who specialized in low intensity conflict. He is a strategic analyst on political, security and trade issues of the Middle East and North Africa.