The foreign and the hostile local media were in an uproar: “The end of democracy in Israel!” they shrieked.
They were responding to the audacity of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s use of two super-charged words, “sovereignty” and “annexation,” regarding the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria (the “West Bank,” as it is improperly referred to by most of the world) just days before Israel’s national election on Tuesday, April 9. This area is more properly referred to as Disputed Territory.
There is much to untangle here: geography, history and linguistics, just to name several threads. For a backgrounder on the area widely referred to as the “West Bank,” please see the section at the end of this article.
Netanyahu said several things to several different news outlets over the course of several days, some of which have been wildly misreported.
WHAT NETANYAHU SAID
Netanyahu said very clearly that Palestinian statehood would “endanger our [Israel’s] existence.” He ruled out that option. On the other hand, he said that the Palestinian Arabs would “run their own lives.” This means that for purposes of day-to-day governance, the Arabs are in charge of the residents of their communities. The one caveat to this is that Israel will continue to be in charge of non-domestic security, i.e. terrorism against its own citizens, when committed by those residing in the Arab sectors.
With respect to Jews in the Disputed Territory, Netanyahu promised: first, to permanently maintain overall Israeli security control, and second, to formalize Israeli rule over the 400,000-plus Israeli Jews in those communities.
In a nutshell: Israel retains security for purposes of all the places in which Jews live; Netanyahu made no distinction between the large Jewish cities and established communities and the small, more isolated Jewish towns. And the Arabs retain decision-making control over their communities, with the one caveat that Israel continues to be in charge of non-domestic security, that is, terrorism against Jews, when committed by those residing in the Arab sectors.
The more than half dozen Jerusalemites with whom this reporter spoke about Netanyahu’s “security sovereignty” statements reacted similarly. To a person, whether scientist, think tank analyst, academic or activist, they all blinked with surprise at the question, because it is simply a description of the current situation. Yawn.
The big change was when Netanyahu – only after being prodded by the Israeli interviewer from Makor Rishon – said that Israel would take the “next step” of annexing the disputed territory during his “next term.”
A blockbuster campaign promise like that, made in what appeared to be an offhand manner and offered on the virtual eve of an election, is pretty much worth the paper it was written on. And it wasn’t even written down.
Most Israelis, when asked for a response to this issue, gave what amounts to an eye roll, a “we’ll believe it when we see it” response. What’s more, there is very little chance any nation other than Israel would recognize Israel’s move to annex these areas.
However, there were two standout responses of note. One from a Jew who lives in the area which Netanyahu promised to formally include within Israel, the other an Arab who lives in a refugee camp in the Disputed Territory.
RESPONSE FROM A JEW IN THE AREA BEING CONSIDERED FOR ANNEXATION
Oded Revivi is the mayor of Efrat, the largest Jewish community in the Disputed Territory. Revivi is also the Chief Foreign Envoy of the umbrella organization which represents the Jewish communities in the Disputed Territory.
Revivi made several important points during a telephone interview the night of Israel’s election. First, he urged that attention be paid to the sea changes which laid the groundwork for Netanyahu’s statements.
First among these changes is Israel’s relationship with the current U.S. administration. For decades U.S. administrations claimed to want to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. They also publicly recognized the security imperative of Israel retaining control over the Golan Heights. But no administration until the current one was willing to follow through. The others did not follow through because they feared the widely-threatened claims of violence by Arabs and regional destabilization, should either step be taken. President Trump took both steps, and other than loud grumbles, nothing happened.
Revivi tied this together with the change in demographics. One of the leading scare tactics used by the peace process battalions has been what they call the “demographic bomb.” This refers to the high birth rates of Arabs, as compared to Jews. The suggestion has been that if it annexed land where Arabs lived, Israel would become less of a majority-Jewish state and could not remain a democratic nature because the Arab population would become the majority.
But there has been a pronounced change in the birth rates, Revivi pointed out. The Arabs have been having far fewer children and the Jews, secular Tel Avivis and observant Jews alike, have been reproducing at a higher rate than ever before. Since 2017, the birth rates for Arabs and Jews within Israel and the Disputed Territories are nearly equal.
Finally, as was reflected in this year’s election, the leftist so-called peace camp has withered away. Revivi pointed to several reasons for this.
WHY THE ISRAELI LEFT HAS WITHERED
In 2005, Israel removed every Jew, living or dead, from the Gaza Strip, handing the entire area over to the Gazan Arabs. This “Disengagement” was undertaken at great national emotional and financial expense, to appease the Arabs and deter them from terrorism. The thought was that this withdrawal gave the Arabs what they had always said they wanted: complete self-determination and self-rule. The result was that the terrorist group Hamas was chosen by Gazans as its “government.” But Hamas has used this opportunity not to improve the lives of the Arabs living there, but instead has treated the Strip as a virtual death star aimed at Israel.
Israel has made additional repeated efforts to make peace with the Palestinian Authority. Led by “the Ehuds,” as Revivi called them, Israeli Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert, these efforts have only led to increased terrorism. They moved the region not an inch closer to peace.
Israelis who used to advocate strongly for the “Two State Solution,” the “Peace Now” groups, Revivi said he now calls the “Divorce Now” groups. Even they no longer talk about a Palestinian State but simply talk about removing Israeli responsibility for the Arabs and leaving them to their own devices.
Until last weekend, Revivi said, no Israeli Prime Minister since Menachem Begin has made any public statements about annexing the land in which the majority of the Arab Palestinians live. Begin’s 1979 Autonomy Plan was replaced in 1993 with the Oslo Accord’s famed “Two State Solution.” As the mantra has gone for so long: “Two states [an Arab Palestinian one and Israel] living side by side in peace and security.”
This week’s election results make clear that the overwhelming majority of the Israeli electorate has concluded no part of the Palestinian Arab leadership is interested in living side by side with Israel in peace.
So the taboo that silenced Israeli talk about annexation has been lifted. That is a very big deal. It is a huge and welcome change to those who have long believed the Two State Solution is a failed effort and who are eager to start moving towards a different and realistic solution. The goal posts – more like tender reeds at the moment – have been moved. That is why the now vastly diminished far left Israeli peace camp and their unheeding and ever-growing cheerleaders abroad, perceive Netanyahu’s statements as a dire threat.
PLAINTIVE RESPONSE FROM AN ARAB LIVING IN THE DISPUTED TERRITORY
Finally, this reporter heard a plaintive response to Netanyahu’s annexation talk. This, from an Arab Palestinian who has lived his entire life in a United Nations refugee camp in the Disputed Territory. Mahmoud – not his real name – said that he and his like-minded Arab friends also had a simple response to the idea of Israeli annexation of the Disputed Territory: “When?”
Mahmoud wants to live a life of dignity and hard work. He wants to live with a government responsive to its people, with municipal services and a decent educational system. That is not life under the Palestinian Authority. So Mahmoud and his friends hoped that annexation would mean living as minorities in a Jewish state, but it would be a life where they would be entitled to human rights and civil rights.
When it was pointed out that Netanyahu did not suggest Israel would acquire control over the daily lives of Palestinian Arabs, Mahmoud, dejected, maintained his hope that someday there would be one state where even people like him could enjoy true citizenship and human rights.
THE “WEST BANK”
The area referred to as the West Bank is located to the east (and northeast and southeast) of Jerusalem, and to the west of Jordan. The term “West Bank” refers to the west bank of the Jordan River.
However, the vast majority of the area now referred to as the “West Bank” is not only not along the bank of the river, it is nowhere in sight of the Jordan River. And by the way, the Jordan River is no teeming gusher. Mark Twain famously referred to the Jordan River as being “no wider than Broadway in New York.”
So to refer to the Disputed Territory as the West Bank would be like referring to a stretch of land 10 miles in from a creek as the west bank of that creek. There is not much of a river and there is virtually no riverbank. There is a Jordan Valley, which is perhaps the more appropriate term for the area, but even that is only approximately ten miles in breadth, at its widest. The term West Bank is a misnomer and has been used to psychologically wrest away its connection to Israel and suggest it is instead, by right, Arab land.
This area includes all of the disputed territory which has belonged, officially, to no sovereign nation since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the conclusion of World War I. That broad expanse includes what is now Jordan, what is now officially recognized by the international community as Israel, and also the territory in-between.
Britain acquired control over this entire area from the League of Nations as part of the British Mandate after the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire dissolved. The eastern part of this area formally became Jordan in 1946. In 1948, the world – acting now through the United Nations – tried to divide the area west of the Jordan River, reserving half for a future Jewish State, and the other half for another Arab State.
The Jews, ravaged by the Holocaust and eager to find a safe harbor especially one in their ancestral homeland, agreed and immediately recognized all of its Arab neighbors. The Arabs categorically rejected the offer and instead five Arab nations went to war to wipe out the tiny, fledgling Jewish nation.
Once it became clear the Jews were winning, however, the United Nations imposed an Armistice. The line where the armies were arrayed when the Armistice went into effect became the effective boundary of Israel.
When several Arab nations again joined together to exterminate Israel in 1967, Israel fought back and took control of additional territory. The southern portion of this land, the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, were offered to Egypt at the conclusion of the war. Egypt accepted the Sinai and rejected control over the Gaza Strip.
The western portion of the land which the Israeli forces defeated the Arab nations, which sits to Jerusalem’s southwest, west, and northwest, is what is now at issue. Israel offered this territory to Jordan in 1980. Jordan is peopled by Hashemite Arabs. The Hashemites disdain those Arabs who lived to its west. And so Jordan refused Israel’s offer it as it would mean attaining control over the local non-Hashemite Arab residents, that is, the Palestinian Arabs.
Ownership of that territory remains disputed. Throughout years of repeated efforts the international community has attempted to broker peace deals between Israel and the Arabs who currently live there and create a Palestinian state – the first in history.
These offers were made in exchange for a cessation of continuous murderous acts of terrorism against Jews. Those offers have never been accepted by the Arabs. Yet people began referring to the land as if it were guaranteed to the Arabs, with no quid for the quo. That is the source of the odious term “occupation,” to refer to Israeli presence in the disputed area.
The Palestinian Arab leadership has refused every peace offer made to them. Nevertheless, the concept that the territory somehow already belongs to the PA has become lodged in the collective minds of much of the world, despite the fact that the PA is not a sovereign nation and despite the PA’s rejecting the sole condition – cessation of terrorism in order to attain control over the territory. This is at the crux of the response to Netanyahu’s statements.