Untying the Gordian Knot of Israeli-Palestinian Relations

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).

Many Palestinians were chased at gunpoint from their property and subsequently deprived of it by partisan law. Like Jews, what most Palestinians want is their property returned, not compensation.

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.

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  1. This reader does not disagree with the thrust of the author’s article as it applies to an unwinding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but his characterization of Crimea as a seizure of territory by the Russian Federation is plain wrong, as it ignores not only the true nature of Russia’s historical claim, but the facts leading up to Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and its accession to the Russian Federation, as well as the body of international law supporting it (including, ironically- at least re: the Brits and Americans- R2P, which was never invoked by Russia), and finally the democratic aspirations – and I emphasize ‘democratic’ in its true meaning. He also ignores the
    violent and unconstitutional Ukraine coup or, on a much lesser scale, the forced secession of Kosovo, which, in contrast, were true land grabs, and should have fallen into the category the author ascribes to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

    As for China, what is the international law that Mr. Spencer can cite, other than a decision by an arbitration panel that lacked jurisdiction to hear the case, since it was in essence a dispute about sovereignty which the Board lacked the power to consider? If he is going to point to UNCLOS as his rationale, he should be reminded that UNCLOS was a treaty predicated on consensus, so that countries failing to sign (with the U.S. as the prime example), or a country reserving on one or more provisions, would not be bound by the treaty, or, in the latter case, by the provisions so reserved. In this regard, China reserved on the EEZ and arbitration provisions precisely because it had what it felt were legitimate and centuries long historical rights to much of the South China Sea. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that UNCLOS encourages negotiation between the parties, and the South China Sea countries that dispute China’s claims have all signed additional protocols that encourage such a process.

    The better answer is either to recognize what are clear historical claims of sovereignty, or, put that issue aside, and instead allow China and its littoral neighbors to negotiate joint development agreements that would share the rewards and bounty of this area, something China is willing to do, but which the US multinationals, and therefore, the Administration, are not, since they would be prevented from negotiating with each country separately to explore and drill, and extract without China there to help those countries as a collective body to demand a better deal.

    Now, with the issue of Palestine and reparations, recall that over 90% of the land was owned by Palestinians and a great majority of the population were Palestinian before they were ethnically cleansed- a process that continues even today as reflected in Israel’s repression in the Occupied territories, in its frequent unilaterally declared wars or ‘haircuts’, and a multitude of other Israeli policies, even in Israel proper against its Muslim Arab and other non-Jewish citizens Let’s assume that each person forced to leave should have been compensated $10,000 for land and personal property seized, relatives murdered and other costs suffered from their forced expulsion, and that 750,000 were forced to leave. Then if we do the math compounded at 8% annually as, say might apply in our own Courts (Colorado, for example), starting from 1948, the number comes out to over $2.6 trillion dollars.

    As a postscript, let’s look at the cost of every war we’ve been in since the WWII, and not only what has been incurred by the perpetrators but what has been borne by the victims. Now you’re talking real money, whether or not the perps are ever brought to trial and convicted. So, what’s to be done?

  2. In Para 1, sentence 2, I meant to say: “….and finally the democratic aspirations of the overwhelming majority of the citizens of Crimea as expressed at the ballot box – and I emphasize ‘democratic’ in the true sense of its meaning.”

  3. This won’t work for several reasons.

    Non-citizen residents of a state have to obey the laws of the state. It is manifestly unjust for them to have no say in the the formulation of those laws through the democratic process. Certainly here in Britain non-citizen residents have a vote. (I am aware that the situation is different in the US.)

    Law in Israel already discriminates against non-Jewish citizens. No doubt it would discriminate even more against non-Jewish non-citizen residents. Palestinian residents in Israel would not accept that.

    According to its draft constitution, Palestinian law will be based on sharia. Jewish Israelis resident in Palestine would not accept that.

    The settlement of Jewish Israelis in Palestine is illegal in international law. It will be very difficult for any such settlers to prove legal title for the land they are occupying.

  4. Decent analysis, convoluted in certain spots.

    I must quibble with “The three key stumbling blocks are said to be borders, Jerusalem, and the right of return.” While (very) true enough, the key stumbling blocks are KNOWN by any sentient being to be Zionism, its adherents, the fascism and racism of illegal settler thugs and most residents of the Zioentity so-called Israel, AIPAC and the entire Zionist Lobby, Netanyahu, the criminal psychosis in which Zionism is mired, etc., etc. All track back to the “original sin”: militant/political ZIONISM.

    (edding and dgfincham: great comments!!)

  5. If Palestinians are compensated. So must the 900.000 Jews who were chased out of Arab lands .

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