Ariel Sharon’s election as Israeli Prime Minister insures a prolonged pause in progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. While awaiting his successor, politicians and commentators could occupy their time constructively by adopting a new “language of peace.” Dangerously misleading terminology remains a major obstacle to a resolution of the conflict.
It is normal practice for parties to a dispute to use language that favors them. In this regard, Israel has been spectacularly successful in imposing its terminology not simply on Israeli and American consciousness but even on many Arab parties and commentators. It has done so not simply in obvious ways like use of the terms “terrorism,” “security” and “Judea and Samaria” but also in more subtle ways.
There is much talk of “concessions” being demanded from and offered by Israel. This word suggests the surrender of some legitimate right or position. In fact, while Israel demands numerous concessions from Palestine, Palestine is not seeking any concessions from Israel. What it is insisting upon is “compliance”–compliance with agreements already signed, compliance with international law and compliance with relevant UN resolutions–nothing more and nothing less. Compliance is not a concession. It is an obligation, both legally and morally.
The concept of “compliance” is well entrenched in Iraq’s case. Partial Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions is rarely hailed as a “concession”–“painful,” “far-reaching,” “unprecedented” or otherwise. In Iraq’s case, anything less than full compliance is deemed “defiance”–at least by the United States. Notwithstanding Israel’s eventual full compliance on its Egyptian, Jordanian and Lebanese borders, most Israelis still believe, with the encouragement of successive US administrations, that peace with Palestine can be achieved without compliance. This is most unlikely–but how many more, on both sides, will die before the logic of “compliance” replaces the false generosity of “concessions”?
The Palestinian territories conquered by Israel in 1967 are frequently referred to as “disputed.” They are not. They are “occupied,” illegally so. While sovereignty over expanded East Jerusalem is explicitly contested, none of the world’s other 192 sovereign states have recognized Israel’s sovereignty claim, and Palestinian sovereignty over the Gaza Strip and the rest of the West Bank is, in both literal and legal senses, uncontested.
Israel has never even purported to annex these territories. Since November 15, 1988, when Palestinian independence and statehood were formally proclaimed, the only state asserting sovereignty over those portions of historical Palestine that Israel occupied in 1967 (aside from expanded East Jerusalem) has been the State of Palestine.
Commentators on all sides speak of Israel “ceding” territory to Palestine or to “the Palestinians.” This word suggests a transfer of land by its legitimate owner. Israel can withdraw from occupied Palestinian lands, but the only land it could legitimately cede would be land inside its internationally recognized, pre-1967 borders (a possibility discussed in pre-election peace negotiations). Indeed, Israel continues to insist that Palestine cede to Israel indisputably Palestinian lands forming part of the meager 22 percent of historical Palestine that Israel did not conquer until 1967. How fair, reasonable and genuinely peace-seeking is this?
Misleading language has been particularly destructive with respect to Jerusalem. For years, Israeli politicians have repeated like a mantra that “Jerusalem must remain united under Israeli sovereignty.” Understandably, most Israelis believe that Israel currently possesses sovereignty over Jerusalem. It does not. It possesses only administrative control. While a country can acquire administrative control by force of arms, it can acquire sovereignty (the state-level equivalent of title or ownership) only with the consent of the international community.
The position of the international community is clear and categorical: Israel is in military occupation of East Jerusalem (including the Old City, site of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount) and has only de facto authority over West Jerusalem. The refusal of virtually all countries (even including the United States) to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital vividly demonstrates the refusal of the international community to concede, yet, that any part of the city is Israel’s sovereign territory.
There can thus be no question of Israel “relinquishing” or “transferring” sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem. Indeed, the only way that Israel will ever acquire sovereignty over any part of the city is by agreeing with Palestine on a basis for either sharing or dividing it (or doing a bit of both) that is recognized as fair and accepted by the international community.
This distinction is of fundamental intellectual and psychological importance for Israeli public opinion. There is a world of difference between being perceived as the Israeli leader who achieved Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem for the first time in 2,000 years and being perceived as the one who relinquished some degree of Jewish sovereignty over the city.
One word that has been too rarely used in connection with the “peace process” is “justice.” For obvious reasons, it is never used by Israeli or American politicians as a component of the “peace” they envision. Yet a true and lasting peace, as opposed to a mere temporary cessation of hostilities, is inconceivable unless some measure of justice is achieved. It is high time for all involved to recognize and speak clearly about these fundamental realities. Peace may depend on it.