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Charles Cogan: A Modest Proposal

The irony—and the tragedy—is that the solution to the Arab-Israeli problem has been known for the last 40 years. Always, the answer is the same, as shown in the following commentary from The Economist in May 2007: “To arrive at peace, Israel would have to give up the West Bank and share Jerusalem; the Palestinians would have to give up their dream of the right of return and assure the security of Israel as a Jewish state. All the rest is detail.”

There is one detail that should be added to this tableau: the settlement must be accompanied by an international security force, including American and European troops. It would be unthinkable, given Israel’s territorial exiguity, that an international force run by troops from the West would not remain for many years in order to protect against Arab irredentism and Israeli expansionism.

Allowing the Palestinians to return to Israel, even in small numbers, would have a harmful effect on the state of Israel and on the future of that country. Just as the Germans are not going to return to East Prussia, and Mexico is not going to retake California, the Palestinians should not expect to return inside the armistice lines concluded as a result of the 1948–49 War.

The Six Day War of June 1967 constituted a clear break in American policy towards Israel. Before then, American aid to Israel was not excessive. Afterward, the situation was completely reversed, notably in the War of 1973 when the United States, faced with a desperate situation in Israel, sent in extremis and in plain sight a massive resupply of arms and ammunition into Lod Airport, in Tel Aviv, putting paid to the already tattered image of American even-handedness in the Middle East.

For Israel too, 1967 constituted a break with the past. Before then—putting aside the military adventure in Suez in 1956, in which the role played by two major European powers, Britain and France, somewhat mitigated its own responsibilities—Israel had not violated the rules of the international community represented by the United Nations. Security Council Resolution 181 of 1947, which preceded the first Arab-Israeli war, called for a partition of Palestine, which the Jewish side accepted but the Arab community, the neighboring Arab states, and the Arab League did not. The war that followed was thus not a violation of that resolution by Israel, and the armistice that concluded it in 1949 was under the aegis of the United Nations.

The aftermath of the Six Day War, in contrast, demonstrated that Israel was not fundamentally concerned with international laws or conventions when what it considered as its own vital interests were at stake. Even if Gamal Abdel Nasser was responsible for the initial escalation—in particular his closing of the Tiran Straits, engendering a blockade of the Israeli port at Eilat, which had enabled Israel to have access to the Red Sea— the preventive and unilateral military intervention of Israel went against the Charter of the United Nations.

In the aftermath of the Six Day War, Israel, supported by the United States, put together a strategy vis-à-vis the resolutions of the United Nations which has continued until today, and which combines selective acceptances, sophisticated evasions, and straight-out confrontations while depending on the capacity of Washington to define the terms of the resolutions to Israel’s advantage or to block them with its veto power.

Thus, to reduce the territorial sacrifices demanded by UN Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967, the United States introduced a subtle linguistic ambiguity, assuring that the final text called for the withdrawal by the Israelis “from territories occupied during the recent conflict” and not from the territories occupied. The crucial ambiguity introduced by the simple elimination of the definite article, as well as the phrase recognizing the right of Israel to exist within “secure and recognized borders,” were exploited by the Israelis as a justification of a quasi-permanent occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. (Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005.) In fact, there is nothing explicit in Resolution 242 which states that the borders between Israel and its Arab neighbors should be renegotiated.

Therefore, at the end of the Six Day War, Israel, without a United Nations cover, kept the occupied territories in spite of Resolution 242 and, moreover, began a creeping colonization into the territories. There are now some 145 colonies in the West Bank with a total population of 240,000. Another 185,000 Israelis are in East Jerusalem, that is, the historic Arab part of the city, also captured by Israel in the Six Day War. This process has followed its course without the international community—or more specifically the Security Council of the United Nations—raising serious and credible objections (in other words, demanding the respect of its own resolutions) due to the influence of the United States and its propensity to use its veto to prevent undesired outcomes.

Despite occasional efforts by American administrations (notably that of George H. W. Bush) aimed at reining in the Israeli colonization of the territories, these have never had substantial results because Congress would not tolerate using aid as leverage on Israeli behavior.

Yet there is nothing in Resolution 242 that authorizes the settlement of Israeli citizens in territories occupied during the 1967 War. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (August 12, 1949), relative to the protection of civilians in a time of war, contains the following provision: “The occupying power will not be able to proceed to deportation, or to transfer its own population into the territories occupied by it.”

In sum, Israel has no local standing in the West Bank, and this is at the heart of its credibility problem with the international community. Unless negotiations can succeed in arranging amicable land swaps which would permit Israel to keep its major settlements in the West Bank, it should not be a question of freezing these settlements; it should be a question of removing them.

[Note: This is an English translation of an excerpt from Charles Cogan’s book, La République de Dieu (Editions Jacob-Duvernet, 2008).]

Charles G. Cogan was chief of the Near-East South-Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from 1979 to 1984. It was this division that directed the covert action operation against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He is now a historian and an associate of the Belfer Center’s International Security Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.

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