New language for the Middle East peace
The recent passage by Israel's Knesset of a law requiring either a two-thirds Knesset majority or approval by an unprecedented national referendum before Israel can "cede" any land in expanded East Jerusalem to a Palestinian state or any land in the Golan Heights to Syria has been widely recognised as making any "two-state solution", as well as any Israeli-Syrian peace, even more inconceivable than was previously the case. It also highlights the need for a concerted effort by politicians, negotiators and commentators to adopt a new "language of peace". The words which people use, often unconsciously, can have a critical impact upon the thoughts and attitudes of those who speak and write, as well as those who listen and read. Dangerously misleading terminology remains a major obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
It is normal practice for parties to a dispute to use terminology which favours them. In this regard, Israel has been spectacularly successful in imposing its terminology not simply on Israeli consciousness and American usage but even on many Arab parties and commentators. It has done so not simply in obvious ways like use of the terms "terrorism", "security", "Eretz Israel" or "Judea and Samaria" but also in more subtle ways which have had and continue to have a profound negative impact on perceptions of legal realities and other matters of substance.
Commentators on all sides speak of Israel's "ceding" territory occupied in 1967 to the Palestinians. The word suggests a transfer of land by its legitimate owner. Unless there are reciprocal exchanges of territory in a final peace agreement, the issue of Israel's "ceding" territory to Palestine does not arise.
Israel can withdraw from occupied Palestinian territory or hand over administrative control of such territory, but to "cede" property one must first possess legal title to it. Israel can no more cede title to occupied Palestinian lands than a squatter can cede title to an apartment, which he has illegally occupied. In reality, it is Israel, which continues to insist that Palestine cede to Israel indisputably Palestinian lands forming part of the meager 22 per cent remnant of historical Palestine which Israel did not conquer until 1967.
There is also much talk of "concessions" - "painful", "farreaching" or otherwise - being demanded from Israel. The 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 has long insisted upon is "compliance" - compliance with agreements already signed, compliance with international law and compliance with relevant United Nations resolutions - nothing more and nothing less. Compliance is not a concession. It is an obligation, both legally and morally, and it is essential if peace is ever to be achieved.
It is not only the Western-embraced Fatah, which insists on nothing more and nothing less than compliance. The Western-shunned Hamas, winners of the most recent Palestinian elections, now publicly proclaims the same position. At a December 1 press conference, Ismael Haniyeh stated: "We accept a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital, the release of Palestinian prisoners and the resolution of the issue of refugees."
The Palestinian territories conquered by Israel in 1967 are frequently referred to as "disputed". They are not. They are "occupied" - and illegally so, since the status of "perpetual belligerent occupation" which Israel has been seeking to impose over the past 43 years does not exist in international law. While sovereignty over expanded East Jerusalem, which Israel has formally annexed, is explicitly contested, none of the world's other 194 sovereign states has recognised 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 (even if not yet universally "recognised").
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, Israelis have come to 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 regarding Jerusalem, which the 1947 UN partition plan envisioned as an internationally administered city legally separate from the two contemplated states, is clear and categorical: Israel is in belligerent occupation of East Jerusalem and has only de facto authority over West Jerusalem. The refusal of the international community (even including the United States) to recognise West Jerusalem as Israel's capital, supported by the maintenance of all embassies accredited to Israel in Tel Aviv, vividly demonstrates the refusal of the international community, pending an agreed solution to the status of Jerusalem, to concede that any part of the city is Israel's sovereign territory.