Where is Palestine?
Palestine, variously known in history as Canaan, Judaea, Eretz Yisrael, Filastin, and Syria Palaestina, has long been a malleable geographical entity. Renamed by its successive Canaanite, Israelite, Roman, Christian, Mamluk, Muslim, Ottoman, and British conquerors, it became the revered "Holy Land" to 19th-century Western visitors.
World War I transformed geographical nomenclature. On November 2, 1917, British Foreign Secretary Lord James Balfour issued his famous declaration proclaiming his government's approval for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." But where was "Palestine"?
After violent Arab riots during 1920-21, the British government attempted to mollify infuriated opponents of a "Jewish Palestine." Winston Churchill, British secretary of state for the colonies, offered reassurance that the Balfour Declaration did not contemplate "that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a home should be founded in Palestine."
If not "Palestine as a whole," then where? The League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, approved in July 1924, provided contradictory answers. Article 6 assured "close settlement by Jews on the land" defined as Palestine. But Article 25 retracted that assurance. In convoluted language, it declared: "In the territories lying between the Jordan [River] and the eastern boundary of Palestine as ultimately determined, the Mandatory shall be entitled, with the consent of the Council of the League of Nations, to postpone or withhold application of such provisions of the Mandate as he may consider inapplicable to the existing local conditions."
In translation: "Palestine" was redefined to mean only the land west of the Jordan River, approximately one-quarter of "Palestine as a whole." The remaining three-quarters were bestowed upon the Hashemite Sheikh Abdullah, son of the Emir of Mecca, for his role in the wartime Arab revolt against Ottoman rule. His kingdom would become known as Trans-Jordan.
But there was also good news for the Zionist cause. Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, Jews enjoyed the internationally guaranteed right of "close settlement" -- without geographical distinction between the coastal plain stretching from Gaza to Haifa, the mountain ridge of Judea and Samaria, or the Jordan Valley west of the River. No limits were imposed on the right of Jews to settle in their modern cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa, or their ancient cities of Hebron and Jerusalem -- or even the Gaza area, where Jews had lived for centuries.
Although the League of Nations expired in 1945, its successor, the United Nations, incorporated in its Charter protection for Jewish settlement rights. Article 80, drafted by Jewish representatives and known as the "Palestine clause," explicitly protected the rights of "any peoples" under "the terms of existing international instruments to which members of the United Nations may respectively be parties." It thereby reaffirmed the right of "close settlement" by Jews throughout the land west of the Jordan River. That right has never been abrogated.
For a time, even prominent local Arabs affirmed "Palestine" as Zionist territory. Testifying before the British Peel Commission in 1937, a Syrian leader asserted: "There is no such country as Palestine. ... Our country was for centuries part of Syria." Palestinian Arabs continued to identify with Greater Syria and "the larger Arab people." Shortly before the birth of the State of Israel, Arab historian Philip Hitti conceded: "There is no such thing as Palestine in history, absolutely not." A PLO military commander subsequently acknowledged: "There are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinian, Syrians and Lebanese. We are all part of one nation."
Without a history to call their own, Palestinians have relentlessly plundered Jewish history to compensate for their missing past. So it is that their biblical "forebears" became the Canaanites; the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, site of the ancient Jewish Temples, is their "third"-holiest site, after Mecca and Medina; Me'arat haMachpelah, built over the burial places of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs in Hebron, is a mosque; and their Gaza flotillas are modeled on the famous Jewish refugee ship Exodus.
Where, exactly, might another Palestinian state arise? "Another," because Jordan, constituting two-thirds of Mandatory Palestine, with a Palestinian majority population, already is a de facto Palestinian state. By any test of history or demography, Jordan is Palestine. Gaza is a Palestinian Hamas fiefdom sworn to Israel's destruction. That makes two Palestinian states. Should any part of the West Bank ever become a Palestinian state, it will make three. That may be at least one too many.
The newly reformed Netanyahu government, which absorbed the centrist Kadima party while retaining Ehud Barak (who relentlessly undermines Jewish settlements) as defense minister, is unlikely to stand firm against Palestinian claims to Jewish land. Netanyahu's expressed hope for a "responsible peace process" inevitably means Israeli concessions. Finally free of the shadow of his staunchly right-wing father Benzion Netanyahu, who died two weeks ago at age 102, the prime minister is likely to welcome yet another "Palestine" -- this time in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Against the Grain: A Historian's Journey, published this month by Quid Pro Books.