In June 1967, in a pre-emptive action that took all of six days, Israel wrested considerable territory from three neighboring Arab countries hellbent on its destruction. The status and subsequent history of those territories has varied greatly. Fifty-three years later, it remains front-page news.
The Sinai Peninsula is part of Egypt. Israel occupied it until Egypt agreed to mutual recognition and a peace treaty. As is common, the treaty included the terms governing Israel’s return of the occupied territory and the drawing of a formal border.
Syria had claimed sovereignty over the Golan Heights for several decades. Unlike Egypt, Syria never expressed any interest in recognizing Israel or negotiating a border. Israel administered the territory peacefully and productively for decades, shifted its legal regime from military to civilian in 1981, and eventually claimed sovereignty over it. The US recognized that claim last year.
Israel’s actions in the Golan – conquest, followed by military occupation, leading into a claim of sovereignty over territory formerly belonging to a different sovereign, culminating in calls for international recognition of the claim – represents a textbook annexation. That definition is important because the term “annexation” is now being bandied about casually and inappropriately vis-à-vis the two remaining territories: Judea & Samaria and Gaza.
Unlike the Sinai and the Golan, these two territories had not belonged to any sovereign since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Jordan had occupied Judea & Samaria illegally in 1949 and announced an annexation that gained minimal recognition. Jordan’s explicit (if failed) annexation was necessary because, even in Jordanian eyes, that land had not previously been sovereign Jordanian territory. In Gaza the matter was even clearer; Egypt administered the territory as a military occupier from 1949 to 1967.
In 1967, Israel liberated those two occupied territories. Under intense international pressure – and to Israel’s lasting shame – Israel neither proclaimed itself nor behaved as a liberator. That’s why those territories remain in the news. For more than 50 years, their status has remained confused and confusing.
That confusion has had significant repercussions. It has confounded the efforts of Jews seeking to rebuild their liberated heartland. It has fueled rage through generations of Arab residents, misled into believing that their violence will produce a sovereign state that has never before existed.
It has complicated Israel’s relationships with foreign countries that feel empowered to speak for Arab “refugees” living under a cloud of legal ambiguity. The lack of clarity concerning the legal status of this territory and its residents is the primary factor keeping the Arab/Israeli conflict alive.
Early this year, the Trump Plan proposed breaking this logjam in the only way possible: by conceding the truth. Israel would extend its civil legal codes to cover the sovereign Israeli land it liberated in 1967 and the Israeli citizens who reside upon it.
It would preserve, for four years, the legal ambiguity surrounding the parts of its liberated, sovereign land where the population is overwhelmingly non-citizens. If, during that period, the Arab population demonstrates competent, peaceful self-governance, Israel will grant them an extremely liberal form of autonomy.
To date, Israel has accepted this proposal but taken no action to implement it. A joint Israeli/American team is studying the demographics and terrain to devise clarifying maps. They expect to finish their work this summer, after which Israel is expected to extend its civil laws within the mapped territory.
International reaction to Israel’s clarifying announcement – like international reaction to the Trump Plan – will be mixed. It will run the gamut from immediate US recognition to vilification from the world’s most anti-American and anti-Semitic regimes. Most of the West and most of the Arab states will fall somewhere in between.
In the US, the issue will hit the Democrats hard just in time for their convention. Their ascendant progressive faction is virulently anti-Israel, and it has been pulling the party strongly in that direction.
Joe Biden – the party’s presumptive presidential nominee and historically more of a moderate – has already announced positions antithetical to Israel’s security. He may promise to withdraw recognition, restore the legal ambiguity, and reignite the conflict. Various European parties may push in the same direction.
The Arabs, on the other hand, have become far more realistic. While every Arab state will condemn Israel’s move, few will let their condemnations negate their own national interests. The states – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Oman, Morocco, and others – most eager to move beyond the Arab/Israeli conflict will continue to do so. Their cautious support for the Trump Plan has already signaled those intentions.
The Trump Plan is finally pushing Israel to face the truth: It liberated its own sovereign territory in 1967, then proceeded to cower in fear before an anti-Semitic world.
That truth will indeed set the Middle East free – free of the Arab/Israeli conflict that has plagued it for nearly a century.