Analysis from Israel

Writing in Israel Hayom yesterday, Yoram Ettinger supported Newt Gingrich’s statement that Palestinians are an “invented” people by offering statistics to show that far from having lived in the Holy Land for millennia, most Palestinians descend from immigrants who came from throughout the Muslim world between 1845 and 1947. Simon Sebag Montefiore provides similar data in his new book, Jerusalem: The Biography, as a New York Times reviewer noted: From 1919-38, for instance, 343,000 Jews and 419,000 Arabs immigrated to the area, meaning Arab Johnny-come-latelies significantly outnumbered the Jewish ones.

One might ask why this should matter: Regardless of when either Jews or Palestinians arrived, millions of both live east of the Jordan River today, and that’s the reality policymakers must deal with. But in truth, it matters greatly – because Western support for Palestinian negotiating positions stems largely from the widespread view that Palestinians are an indigenous people whose land was stolen by Western (Jewish) interlopers.

Current demographic realities would probably suffice to convince most Westerners that a Palestinian state should exist. But the same can’t be said of Western insistence that its border must be the 1967 lines, with adjustments possible only via one-to-one territorial swaps and only if the Palestinians consent. Indeed, just 44 years ago, UN Resolution 242 was carefully crafted to reflect a Western consensus that the 1967 lines shouldn’t be the permanent border. So what changed?

The answer lies in the phrase routinely used to describe the West Bank and Gaza today, but which almost nobody used back in 1967, when Israel captured these areas from Jordan and Egypt, respectively: “occupied Palestinian territory.” This phrase implies that the land belongs to the Palestinians and always has. And if so, why shouldn’t Israel be required to give back every last inch?

But if the land hasn’t belonged to the Palestinians “from time immemorial” – if instead, both Palestinians and Jews comprise small indigenous populations augmented by massive immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the West Bank and Gaza becoming fully Judenrein only after Jordan and Egypt occupied them in 1948 – then there’s no inherent reason why the border must necessarily be in one place rather than another. To create two states, a border must be drawn somewhere, but that “somewhere” should depend only on the parties’ current needs – just as the drafters of Resolution 242 envisioned. Indeed, that resolution explicitly called for “secure” boundaries precisely because the 1967 lines were “notably insecure,” to quote then U.S. Ambassador to the UN Arthur Goldberg, and Western statesmen believed the permanent border must be relocated to make it defensible.

Moreover, if Palestinians aren’t the land’s indigenous owners, it becomes possible to implement another important principle: that 64 years of refusing repeated Jewish offers of statehood should entail a territorial price. For if decades of making war rather than peace doesn’t entail a territorial price, that encourages aggressors to keep trying to gain the whole loaf through military action, secure in the knowledge that half a loaf will always still be available if they ever decide otherwise.

On immigration, as in so many other aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it turns out that history matters, and by ignoring it, Israel and its supporters have badly undermined their own cause. Reversing direction at this late date won’t be easy. But if the conflict is ever to be resolved, correcting the historical record is vital.

 

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Israel’s constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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