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. Except that many of them left willingly: some still remain in Arab lands, which corroborates the fact that they weren’t chased out. Vide ‘We were not fleeing Yemen’ By BENJAMIN JOFFE-WALT / THE MEDIA LINE 09/27/2010 02:58 in the Jerusalem Post

  2. Dani – Maybe you are right- though be honest and at some point be prepared to acknowledge, if the evidence bears out (as I believe it would) that for the most part their expulsion was retaliatory and would not have happened had the Palestinians not been driven from their lands and the Arab nations not gone to war with Israel as a result.

    I’m not disputing or accepting your point without further inquiry- and I would urge that all of this needs real in depth research and investigation of the type performed by historians like Ilan Pappe, not what the propagandists have been peddling- but, in the end, why not make those who caused the damage pay and pay a fair price if the right of return is denied, and the homes and other property that were seized are not returned to their rightful owners- and if what happened in 1948 can be attributed to the desperation of the Holocaust survivors – why victimize the Palestinians and force them to bear the reparation costs and unspeakable suffering for the past six plus decades for the heinous and unspeakable crimes committed by the Europeans.

    If you truly want peace, stability and the prosperity that would follow, you must face the facts and deal with them, and in the end come out with something positive and acceptable to every interested party.

  3. The international consensus that the Israel-Palestine border will be based on the Green Line results from a false interpretation of Resolution 242 spread by the Zionist and pro-Zionist American and British drafters of the Resolution. There is no support for such an idea in the words of the Resolution. It says only that Israel forces must withdraw to the Green Line; and that there must be agreed borders. It says nothing about where such borders might be. It is up to the two states to decide where their mutual border will be. Within the territory now controlled by Israel there is already an Arab majority. There are also five million Palestinian refugees with a right to return. A border along the Green Line would leave the majority Arab population with 22% of Mandatory Palestine, and the minority Jewish population with 78%. Such a situation could not possibly lead to viable and contiguous Palestinian state, or a just and peaceful solution. There needs to be a substantial transfer of territory from Israel to Palestine, most suitably within the Negev.

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