The territorial truth

Posted: Aug 13, 2002 12:00 AM
As we are learning in Afghanistan, ending the war is just the beginning of securing the peace. The same will be true of the Arab/Israeli conflict, which is why I have written extensively about the need for a Marshall Plan for Palestine and the Middle East. It will be necessary for the West to remain engaged in the Middle East in order to ensure democracy and freedom for all the Christians, Jews and Muslims living in the region. George Orwell said that the first duty of intelligent men is to restate the obvious, and that is precisely what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did last week with respect to the territorial dispute between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. Speaking at a briefing last Wednesday, he gave a quick history lesson on the Middle-East that in one sentence summarized the essence of the problem: "If you have a country that's a sliver and you can see three sides of it from a high hotel building, you've got to be careful what you give away and to whom you give it." When Israeli diplomats refer to Israel's "security," they are not just talking about defending its people -- Jewish and Arab -- from terrorist attacks; they are talking about enabling Israel to defend itself from those who seek to destroy it. It is not the case that Israel refuses to grant the Palestinians self-rule, and we should never forget that under Menachem Begin's Likud government Israel gave the Siani back to Egypt. There have been two formal attempts by the international community since Jordan achieved independence to create Palestinian self-rule in the territories that roughly encompass Gaza and the West Bank, once in 1947 and again in 2000, which the Arab world rejected in 1947 and then Yasser Arafat rejected in 2000. After the Arabs rejected the 1947 effort under the U.N. partition plan and Israel was created the following year, Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League, declared, "This will be a war of extermination." True to his word, the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq attacked Israel. During this war, Jordan illegally occupied the West Bank territories and Egypt illegally occupied Gaza. Efforts to destroy Israel continued unabated during the next 19 years, and in 1967 war broke out again. This time, it was Egypt's President Gamel Nasser who said, "Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel." During the ensuing Six Day War, Jordan lost the West Bank and Egypt lost Gaza to Israel. This is the history to which Rumsfeld had reference when he said: "My feeling about the so- called occupied territories is that there was a war, Israel urged neighboring countries not to get involved in it once it started, they all jumped in, and they lost a lot of real estate to Israel because Israel prevailed in that conflict. In the intervening period, they've made some settlements in various parts of the so-called occupied area, which was the result of a war, which they won." Between 1948 and 1967, when the West Bank and Gaza were under Arab control, no attempt was ever made to create a separate Palestinian state there. Instead, Jordan annexed the West Bank and gave its residents full Jordanian citizenship. The question over who should control what parts of the so-called occupied territories remains a legitimate dispute today. Those lands, including the cities of Hebron, Schechem and Bethlehem, have ancient biblical roots. Jews always lived there until they were pushed out in the 1920s. The land also included the Western Wall of Jerusalem, and people tend to forget that until the 1967 war, Jews could not pray at that, their most holy of sites. Hence it is not correct to describe Israeli communities that grew up on this disputed territory as "settlements" on "occupied territory." The problem with those who claim that the conflict would be over if the Israelis simply ended the occupation is that they assume Palestinians are the legal, sovereign owners of these territories and what their borders should be. As Rumsfeld pointed out, those are precisely the questions that still need to be resolved. Rumsfeld deserves commendation for his truth-telling and his clarity. As we all work and pray for a peaceful solution to the crises in the Middle East, we will do well to keep his reservations in mind. History can repeat itself, so who could fault a sliver of a democracy for insisting that there be a functioning Palestinian democracy before it gives back precious land it won in a defensive war? Ultimately, there will have to be compromise on both sides, and the United States will have to support economic aid and free trade for the region. We already have a free-trade agreement with Jordan, which could be extended to other Arab nations willing to make peace with Israel and guarantee Israel's security from terrorist assault.