What Should Netanyahu Say?
Next Tuesday, four days after he meets with President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu will address Congress. With Israel now confronting a triple-security threat that leaves the country more vulnerable than at any time since the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, it is imperative for the Israeli leader to stand firm.
Netanyahu's planned "peace initiative" has been undermined by recent events. With its peace treaty with Egypt fraying since Mubarak's forced departure, Gaza will surely become a Hamas arsenal. Reconciliation between Hamas, sworn to Israel's destruction, and the Palestinian Authority, too weak to resist, will trap Israel between Palestinian pincers in Gaza and the West Bank. Looming in September is United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood, another step in that organization's persistent delegitimization of Israel.
Pressure continues to mount, from the international community and from the Obama administration, for Israel to relinquish the West Bank for a Palestinian state -- and, presumably, "peace." That is a delusion.
It is time for Netanyahu, in his address to Congress, to decisively reject the seductive but menacing mantra of "land for peace." His recent declaration that the Palestinian Authority can have peace with Israel or with Hamas, but not both, was reassuring. His conditions for peace, recently outlined to the Knesset, sounded firm: Palestinian recognition of Israel; its refugee problem to be solved outside Israel's borders; settlement blocs to remain part of Israel, with Jerusalem as its united capital. But they are insufficient.
The West Bank mountain ridge forms the major land barrier against an attack from the east that could decimate the coastal plain (including Tel Aviv), where 70 percent of Israelis live. The widely despised Jewish settlements located there are not the primary obstacle to peace; enduring Arab hostility to a Jewish state is. Between 1948 and 1967, there were no settlements -- and still no peace.
The prime minister might use his opportunity to remind the world that the West Bank, biblical Judea and Samaria, is the biblical homeland of the Jewish people. Two thousand years of ancient Jewish history unfolded there. If there is Jewish land anywhere in the world, it is there.
Until after the Six-Day War, however, this land was Judenrein. Only then, following yet another failed Arab attempt to annihilate the Jewish state, could Jews return to live in their historical homeland. More than 300,000 Israelis have done so. Surrounding settlements with a Palestinian state will destroy them and undermine Israeli security. The alternative -- Israeli expulsion of tens of thousands of Jews who live outside the settlement blocs -- is no better.
Finally, given relentless international efforts to delegitimize Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu might remind critics that Jewish settlement, protected by international guarantees ever since 1922, is fully consistent with international law.
The League of Nations Mandate then cited "the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and the legitimacy of grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country." After Great Britain lopped off three-quarters of Palestine for Trans-Jordan (the first Palestinian state), Jews were assured the right of "close settlement" in the remaining land west of the Jordan River. That right has never been rescinded.
Article 80 of the United Nations Charter explicitly protected the rights of "any peoples or the terms of existing international instruments to which members of the United Nations may respectively be parties." Drafted in 1945 by Jewish legal representatives (including Ben-Zion Netanyahu, the Prime Minister's father), it preserved the rights of the Jewish people to settle in all the land west of the Jordan River.
Settlement critics often cite Article 49 of the Geneva Convention, adopted in 1949 in the shadow of the Holocaust, as a restriction on settlement. They are mistaken. Drafted to prevent a repetition of the forced Nazi and Soviet deportations of civilian populations, it declared that an "Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."
This provision has no applicability to Jewish settlements. Neither during nor since the Six-Day War did Israel "deport" Palestinians from the West Bank or "transfer" Israelis there. Settlers acted on their own volition to restore a Jewish presence in the Jewish homeland -- precisely as Zionist kibbutzniks had earlier done in the Galilee and Negev.
After the Six-Day War, Security Council Resolution 242 permitted Israel to administer the West Bank until "a just and lasting peace in the Middle East" is achieved. (In case anyone has noticed, that has not yet happened.) Even then, Israel would be required only to withdraw its armed forces "from territories" -- not from "the territories" or "all the territories."
The absence of "the," the missing definite article, was not accidental. The result of prolonged negotiation, it meant that Israel would not be required to withdraw from all the territory that it had acquired during the Six-Day War; indeed, precisely such proposals were defeated in both the Security Council and the General Assembly.
Prime Minister Netayahu's speech should be framed with reminders of these international guarantees, the historic Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel, and the menacing security situation that Israel will confront should its ancient homeland be abandoned. The consequences for Israel of surrendering its legitimate security and its historic and internationally guaranteed land claims would be dire, if not fatal.
But if his past is prologue, then Netanyahu is likely to revert, once again, to what Harvard Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse has aptly called "the Diaspora strategy of accommodation." This is precisely what Jewish statehood was intended to terminate.
Netanyahu's willingness to sacrifice Jewish land, first demonstrated when he capitulated to Clinton administration demands under the Oslo II Accords, is a disturbing harbinger. Last year he acceded to President Obama's insistence on a ten-month freeze on settlement construction -- in return for nothing. Even after the freeze expired, with no discernible Palestinian willingness to resume peace negotiations, Netanyahu tacitly acquiesced to its continuation.
Appeasement paved the way for one horrific Jewish tragedy. It is imperative for Israel's Prime Minister to state, clearly and unequivocally, that the Jewish state will not become another Czechoslovakia, sacrificed by "friends" to please its enemies. Clinging to the fantasy of land for peace can only deepen Israel's alarming vulnerability.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena, published this month by Quid Pro Books.