The Legitimacy of Jewish Settlements
“Most of my ethnic group,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently wrote (evading his identity as a Jew), “understands that Trump is bad for the Jews.” Why? According to the paper’s Jerusalem bureau chief David Halbfinger, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement that the United States does not consider Israeli settlements to be a violation of international law was an unwarranted “political gift” from the Trump administration to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The truth of Pompeo’s statement was, to Halbfinger, irrelevant.
Such judgements — whether by publishers, editors, columnists or Jerusalem bureau chiefs — have long reflected the conventional Times wisdom that Jewish statehood is bad for Jews, especially assimilated American Jews, lest they be accused of divided loyalty. The problem with their reflexively negative response to the reality of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria — the biblical homeland of the Jewish people — is that Jewish history and international law undermine their claim.
The Hebron tombs of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the most ancient Jewish holy site, are located in biblical Judea. King David reigned from Hebron before relocating his throne to Jerusalem. Samaria was the capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel in the 9th and 8th centuries BCE. More than a millennium before the emergence of Islam, Jewish history was embedded in Judea and Samaria. Despite Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s absurd claim that Palestinians are descended from ancient Canaanites, “Palestinians” had yet to make their appearance as a distinctive people, nor would they until well into the 20th century.
If ancient history is on the side of Jewish settlements, international law ever since World War I reinforces their legitimacy. The prelude was the 1917 letter written by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, declaring: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
Five years later, after the war ended, the newly established League of Nations Mandate approved “the establishment of the Jewish national home” in Palestine. The British Mandatory Authority was instructed to encourage “close settlement by Jews on the land.” There was no mention of Palestinians, who did not yet exist as an identifiable, or self-identified, people.
But where was “Palestine”? It comprised the territory east and west of the Jordan River, between the Mediterranean Sea and Iraq. However, to placate Hashemite Sheikh Abdullah, Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill partitioned Palestine, granting the land east of the Jordan River for the Kingdom of Trans-Jordan. “Palestine,” reduced to one-quarter of its original size, comprised the land west of the Jordan River. During Israel’s war of independence in 1948 Jordan expanded its territory to include Judea and Samaria, newly identified as the Kingdom’s “West Bank.”
After the Six-Day War in 1967, United Nations Resolution 242 provided that following “a just and lasting peace” between Israel and its defeated Arab neighbors, Israel would be required to withdraw its armed forces from “territories” — not “the territories” or “all the territories” — west of the Jordan River. That language was intentional. The right of the Jewish people to “close settlement” west of the Jordan River, in biblical Judea and Samaria, had not been rescinded.
Much to the dismay of the Times — should its editors and reporters ever deign to learn the history and law that undermine its repetitive assertion that the West Bank is “occupied” territory belonging to Palestinians — Judea and Samaria are, since 1967, liberated territories. According to international law, they belong to the nation-state of the Jewish people: Israel.
Last month, bureau chief Halbfinger (citing a former aide to Prime Minister Shimon Peres) warned that settlement growth, endorsed by President Donald Trump, “puts Israel’s status as a Jewish democracy at risk.” According to Isabel Kershner, his Times colleague in Jerusalem, “Most of the world views the expansion of Jewish settlements as an impediment to peace.” Her assertion was based on the Fourth Geneva Convention, ratified after World War II by 196 countries, that an “occupying” nation may not “deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” But Israel (unlike Nazi Germany, which was targeted by the Convention) did not “deport” or “transfer” settlers, nor “occupy” territory. They returned to their biblical homeland voluntarily and eagerly.
In the end, Secretary of State Pompeo demonstrated that he knows far more about international law than New York Times reporters or columnists. Once again President Trump, as he did when recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel and Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, has aligned American policy with international law and the security of Israel.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, published by Academic Studies Press.