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Starry Skies Above

19 June 2002

I.F. Stone, the great independent journalist of the 1950s and 60s, once defined tragedy as the conflict between right and right. He was talking about Israel and the Palestinians. Stone had smuggled himself into the land during the British Mandate and his sympathetic writings of the struggle for a Jewish state made him a hero to Israelis, but he could empathize with the Palestinians too. Since then the rightful claims of both sides has led to a multitude of wrongs.

While there are difficulties to work out besides the border, the real sticking points are the ambitions of a minority on each side to claim all the land between the Jordan and Mediterranean.

Orthodox Judaism is split on the question of occupying the West Bank (which they refer to as Judea and Samaria). Some even opposed the establishment of the state of Israel on the grounds that it was necessary for the Messiah to appear first. Others believe that the Messiah will only appear after all of Biblical Israel is occupied by Jews. (They also believe the Messiah is waiting for them to rebuild the Temple, which is deemed to be on the site of the Dome of the Rock.) A typical statement is one made by a West Bank settler to Bill Moyers (4/5/02): This land belongs to us. And there is proof all through the Bible.

The argument, however, is based more on tradition than on Torah. The Bible mentions the Promised Land six times, and it is not always the same. In Genesis 12:7 and 13:15 the extent of the land promised is unspecified. In 15:18 it stretches from the Nile to the Euphrates; that is, taking in much of present day Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. Not even the most fervently orthodox Jew has claimed that much land, yet there it is in Genesis. However, Genesis 17:8 defines the Promised Land as Canaan, which is less than present-day Israel. The most specific definition of the Promised Land occurs in Numbers 34:1-12 where its southern boundary would chop off much of the Negev while its northern boundary includes much of Lebanon and Syria. The Promised Land is mentioned again in Deuteronomy 1:7-8, but its extent there is unclear.

If God can be flexible about the extent of the Promised Land, one might ask, why can't the settlers?

There is nothing in the Torah that says that Jews must occupy all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, or build a Temple on the Temple Mount, in order for the Messiah to come. Nor does it say anywhere that even if God gave the land to the Jews they can t be generous and offer a portion of it to the Palestinians so both people can enjoy a homeland. While Biblical Israel was sacred to King Solomon, that did not prevent him from giving away twenty villages in the Galilee to Hiram, the King of Tyre as payment for the wood to build the Temple. This is recorded in Kings I, without rebuke or dissent.

If these arguments are not persuasive, and they probably won't be, then the only thing left for the majority who believe that the promise of peace is more important than the promise of land is to assert that priority by cutting off support for the settlements and, if necessary, physically closing them.

I have asked several people who believe passionately that the settlements are sacred what their solution would be to the conflict. Usually, they just shrug. Either they genuinely don't know, or they believe that the settlers are doing their part and now it is up to God to do His. An increasing number, however, have a solution they call transfer, which is a euphemism for exile. They believe that the Palestinians, at least most of them, should be physically removed from all the land west of the Jordan. How, they don't know. Where, they don't care.

Anyone who is not talking about closing settlements is not talking about peace.

The other intransigent problem is the ongoing determination of Hamas and other extremists to obliterate Israel. On the January 27 telecast of 60 Minutes, Abu Marzuk, a senior Hamas official, told Steve Croft that he would accept having a Palestinian state within the 1967 frontiers at least in this stage. How can you make peace with someone who holds in reserve the ambition to destroy you? Even if Palestinian leaders were to renounce that goal, it would still require trading something tangible - land - for something as intangible as someone's word. No wonder the idea makes Israelis nervous. The failure of any Palestinians to put forth a peace proposal of their own feeds Israeli suspicion on this score.

But the present situation simply puts those who would destroy Israel within Israel. Strategically, it would make more sense to create a more secure border and put them outside Israel proper. (And, no, Jordan is not going to take them.) That by itself, however, is not enough to ensure Israel's security. What that would take is for the United States or NATO to guarantee Israel s existence. That might take patrols, it would certainly require continued military assistance, and it would ultimately mean a willingness guaranteed by treaty to intervene if Israel s existence were threatened.

The comment by Abba Eben about the Palestinians, that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, is now becoming applicable to Israel as well. The offer made by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for all the Arab countries to make peace with Israel in return for a Palestinian state in the lands occupied by Israel as a result of the 1967 war is an opportunity for a dialog. It is not perfect as it stands; the devil may well lurk in the details. But it is as reasonable a basis for further discussion as the offer made by Barak to Arafat at Camp David, yet Israel, so far, has spurned it.

A majority of Israelis favor a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza now. A poll conducted for Yedioth Ahronoth May 14, 2002 found 63% of Israelis in favor of a Palestinian state as part of a permanent peace agreement (reported by Americans for Peace Now). A feeling of security would increase their numbers. That is contrary to the ambitions of Palestinian militants. At the same time, by insisting that no negotiations will take place until there is a complete halt to terrorist attacks, Sharonwhose Likud Party recently voted to oppose the establishment of a Palestinian State anywhere west of the Jordangives terrorists a veto over any attempt at an agreement.

For the terrorists, the settlements are a recruiting tool, indicating to moderate Palestinians that they will never have a viable country of their own. For the settlers, the terrorists prove that peace is not an option so the country may as well hold on to the West Bank.

The Settlers and the Terrorists need each other, but who needs them.

Jerome Richard
Published by © 2002 Jerome Richard

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