Four Myths About the Mideast and Real Estate

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published December 16, 2009, issue of December 25, 2009.
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‘Take not heed unto all words that are spoken,” the wise old preacher Ecclesiastes wrote. You might find to your grief that people don’t always say what they mean — or worse, that they do.

In that spirit, here’s a quick primer to some common sayings in circulation these days and what they really mean.

Myth No. 1: Israeli settlements in the territories aren’t the problem preventing peace. The problem is Arab refusal to accept Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.

Actually, the Arabs have formally accepted Israel’s legitimacy. The Palestine Liberation Organization accepted it in September 1988, when it endorsed the 1947 United Nations Partition Resolution dividing Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The PLO decision was endorsed unanimously by the Arab League in February 2002.

In both cases, Arab acceptance of Israel’s right to statehood was made conditional on Israeli acceptance of a Palestinian right to statehood in the territories alongside Israel.

Many Palestinians, however, don’t believe Israel honestly accepts their right to statehood. They see continued Israeli construction in the heart of their anticipated state as a sign of bad faith at best, and at worst as a deliberate Israeli attempt to turn the future Palestine into Swiss cheese. Indeed, the Jewish radicals who have set up shop in the heart of the West Bank settled there not for the view but to make territorial compromise impossible.

Israel itself agreed to a complete freeze on settlement, including “natural growth,” plus the dismantling of settlement outposts, when it accepted President Bush’s road map to peace in 2003. The Palestinians, in return, agreed to tough action against terrorism. Six years later, the Palestinians have made considerable progress against violence, Israeli and Western intelligence agencies agree. Israel, for its part, hasn’t dismantled the outposts. And now it has rolled out its new policy of a partial, time-limited construction freeze as though it were a major new concession for which Israel should be compensated, rather than a late, grudging fulfillment of an old commitment.

No, settlements aren’t the only major impediment to peace, but they make it a lot harder.

As for Arab acceptance of Israel “as a Jewish state,” this is a red herring. Nations don’t recognize each others’ internal self-definitions; rather, nations recognize other nations’ sovereign right to define themselves without outside interference, positive or negative. The United States doesn’t recognize Great Britain as a monarchy, nor China as a communist state; it simply recognizes them as sovereign and free to arrange themselves as they choose. Israel doesn’t really want Egypt or the future Palestine to tell it what kind of nation it should be. The whole idea was introduced last spring by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a stalling tactic.

Myth No. 2: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and other territories it captured in 1967 is illegal.

The Israeli occupation might be called many things, but “illegal” isn’t one of them. The multilateral treaty known as the Fourth Geneva Convention is the body of international law governing military occupation of territories captured in war, detailing what an occupying power can and can’t legally do. The underlying presumption is that the occupation itself is legal; otherwise the entire discussion of how to conduct the occupation would be moot.

It is true that certain Israeli actions as an occupying power — including settling its citizens in occupied territories and detaining security prisoners on Israel’s own sovereign territory — are explicitly banned in the fourth convention, presumably meaning they violate international law. Israel interprets the language of the convention differently, and no international tribunal has ruled on who is right. But the underlying fact of occupation remains unassailably legal until such time as the territories’ final disposition is determined in a peace agreement, may it come speedily.

Myth No. 3: Jews don’t expel other Jews.

If this statement is taken to mean that expelling families from their homes is a human rights violation, as it’s undoubtedly supposed to sound to the unwary ear, it’s patently untrue. Governments around the world routinely expel families to make way for highways, dams and other projects deemed in the public interest. Israel itself evicted scores of Arab families to create an open plaza alongside the Western Wall, hundreds more to clear a security zone through Rafah in southern Gaza and thousands over the years because a close relative was involved in terrorism.

If the intent is specifically that Jews should respect the sanctity of other Jews’ homes at any expense, it’s still untrue. Thousands of Israeli Jews have been expelled from their homes over the years to make way for urban renewal in the Mamilla district of downtown Jerusalem or the Ayalon Highway into downtown Tel Aviv or simply for nonpayment of rent or mortgage. Expelling families from their homes is standard practice in every culture. It’s called “real estate.”

What they really mean is something completely different: Jews shouldn’t prevent other Jews who are more devout from staking land claims, based on their own reading of the Bible, in order to dictate Israel’s foreign and defense policies.

Myth No. 4: Israel is the only country in the world that is not allowed to build in its own capital.

This is a trick question. Indeed, Israel probably is the only country that is condemned for building in its own capital — or, more precisely, in the capital’s eastern portion.

On the other hand, Israel is also the only country in the world that has formally included within its capital city’s boundaries land that no other country in the world — not one — recognizes as being within its sovereign territory.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at blogs.forward.com/jj-goldberg.


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