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by Max Singer


We should not be surprised when Europeans, among others, refuse to be moved by Israel's complaints about Palestinian terror and have no patience for arguments about the need for defensible borders. The reason, though straightforward, goes almost unnoticed: Israel talks about its needs; while Palestinians talk about their rights.

This is not to say that Europeans and other well-meaning people think it is right to pummel Israel with suicide bombings - although they have become so fed up that they do not visibly object. Even if they agree, on paper, that terror should stop, Israel's fundamental case is seen as a series of excuses to keep land it stole from the Palestinians.

Palestinians talk about justice and Israelis talk about violation of agreements. So long as the dispute with Palestinians is seen as a fight between a thief and his victim, a fight about when "Palestinian land" will be returned to its rightful owner, Israel's talk of its security needs will fall on deaf ears.

In emotional terms, thieves don't have rights, even to security. How could we expect support for a "thief's" assertion that the victim shouldn't use illegal means to recover his land, that he, the "thief," needs stolen property to protect his security, or that consideration should be given to the citizens the usurper has settled on the stolen land?

Our demand for "defensible borders," for example, is heard as "Israel needs to keep Palestinian land in order to defend itself." This doesn't grab Europeans who don't even worry much about being able to defend themselves, much less Israel.

The Palestinians, by contrast, are heard as saying, "we are a proud and ancient people; our land was stolen by colonialist foreigners, and we will fight until we get it back." The reply that they are fighting too dirty, or that Israel needs the land to protect its security, doesn't carry much emotional weight.

Of course European and other opinion and policy is also affected by other factors besides the basic moral sense of the citizens, but the great wave of anti-Israel feeling that has been built on this moral misjudgment has a momentum which must be countered to make a change in policy possible. Israel needs to concentrate on making Europeans and others understand that the Palestinians are not victims of a theft, but rather defeated litigants who refuse to accept the authoritative decisions made against them.

Entrenched anti-Israel sentiment will not be moved until we state that we are a proud and ancient people; that the disputed land is our homeland, and was ours historically; that the land was assigned to us by the League of Nations, and we will fight to protect our country.

We must distinguish between our willingness to give up part of our homeland - short of making it indefensible - for the sake of peace, and relinquishing "stolen" territory. Further, we should be pointing out that we allow Arabs to live as full citizens on the land that we control while the Arabs expel Jews from any land they acquire, even though there is no other Jewish land and there are millions of miles of other Arab land.

Israel has to act as if it believes that its moral, legal and historical claims to the disputed territories are as good or better than the claims of the Palestinians, and that it is as passionate to protect its land they are to acquire it. Only then will the Europeans come to understand that "occupied Palestinian land" is instead disputed territory for which Israel has legal and moral claims that have been formally endorsed by the international community.

THE DISPUTED land, we should remember, became available in 1920 when its former sovereign, the defeated Ottoman Empire, was removed. The League of Nations heard the dispute between the Jews, represented by the Balfour Declaration of Great Britain, and the Arabs living in the land, represented by other Arab countries.

Aware that the Jews had ruled the land in ancient times, had no other homeland, and were displacing no existing state, the League decided that the Jewish people should be invited to settle the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as its homeland. The Arabs, including the Palestinians, never accepted this decision - which has never been rescinded.

Some argue that the League of Nations decision was a "colonial" decision and should not stand against the right of self-determination. But the League decision was the binding legal authority in 1922 and all Jews who came to the land after that date to build a state came on the basis of that authority. And the many Arabs who moved to the land after 1922 came knowing that it had been legally designated as the future Jewish homeland. While this may not be the end of the story it is an essential beginning.

Israel's rights are not perfect or exclusive, but they are certainly strong enough so that it does not come to the table as a "thief of Palestinian land." The Palestinians' claims may be strong enough to justify giving them some of the land they want. But since the Palestinians have never been rulers of the land, it could not have been stolen from them.

Palestinians, therefore, are claimants, not the victims of theft. Their behavior should be judged as the acts of a claimant seeking land to which he thinks he is entitled, not as the acts of a dispossessed owner.

The Palestinian claim of ownership is in effect a claim that the League should not have granted the Jews a national home, and that the United Nations should not have voted to partition the land, but that, despite the overwhelming view of the international community, Israel has no right to exist.

When the dispute is recognized to be a conflict between two parties both of whom have strong claims, people can consider a compromise that reflects the needs of both peoples: the Palestinians' for land beyond where they already live, to create a more viable state; Israel's for defensible borders in the face of the continuing Arab refusal to accept any non-Muslim state. Only when the pursuit of such a compromise is seen as just will the cruelty of Palestinian fighting methods, and the intransigence of their negotiating position, become morally evident.


The writer is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the BESA Center of Bar-Ilan University. Contact him at

This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post June 2, 2005. It is archived at ShowFull&cid=1117678727442&apage=1

Thanks are due Judy Lash Balint for sending us this article as a Jerusalem Diaries email.


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