Time for a new language of peace


With the first months of Ariel Sharon’s national unity government ensuring, at best, a prolonged pause in any progress towards peace, one constructive activity which could be pursued while waiting for Sharon’s successor as prime minister would be 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 effect 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 matters of substance.

There is much talk of “concessions” being demanded from and offered by 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 is insisting 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.

The concept of “compliance” is well entrenched in Iraq’s case. Partial Iraqi compliance with United Nations 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 long-delayed but eventually full compliance with United Nations resolutions on its Egyptian, Jordanian and Lebanese borders, most Israelis still believe, with the encouragement of successive American 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 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”).

Israel has never even purported to annex these territories. Jordan renounced all claims to the West Bank in favour of the Palestinians in July 1988. While Egypt administered the Gaza Strip for 19 years, it never asserted sovereignty over it. Since Nov. 15, 1988, when Palestinian independence and statehood were formally proclaimed, the only state asserting sovereignty over those portions of historical Palestine which Israel occupied in 1967 (aside from expanded East Jerusalem) has been the state of Palestine, a state which, even though it continues to operate within its own territory through a Trojan horse named the Palestinian National Authority, now meets all the customary international law criteria for sovereign statehood and is already recognised as a state by over 100 other sovereign states.

Commentators on all sides speak of Israel “ceding” territory to Palestine (or to “the Palestinians” for those who refuse to admit that Palestine exists). 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 meagre 22 per cent of historical Palestine which 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, 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 is clear and categorical: Israel is in military occupation of East Jerusalem and has only de facto authority over West Jerusalem. The refusal of virtually all countries (even including the United States) to recognise West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, supported by the maintenance of all embassies other than those of Costa Rica and El Salvador 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.

During the recent election campaign, Ehud Barak publicly pledged never to sign a document transferring sovereignty over the Haram Al Sharif. Indeed, as Barak no doubt recognised when he spoke, there can be no question of Israel relinquishing or transferring sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem for the simple reason that Israel currently possesses no such sovereignty. Indeed, the only way that Israel will ever acquire sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem is by agreeing with Palestine on a fair basis for either sharing or dividing sovereignty over the city (or doing a bit of both) which is recognised as fair and accepted by the international community.

This distinction is not simply a matter of semantics. It is of fundamental intellectual and psychological importance for Israeli public opinion, which, in turn, is of fundamental practical importance to any hope of achieving peace in the Middle East. There is a world of difference for an Israeli leader between being perceived as the man who achieved Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem for the first time in 2000 years and being perceived as the man who relinquished some measure of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem. It could be a life-or-death distinction.

One word which has been too rarely used in connection with the “peace process” (and which should be invoked more often) 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 both achieved and perceived, by both sides, to have been achieved.

Palestine is not seeking concessions from Israel, only compliance. The Palestinian territories conquered in 1967 are not disputed, simply illegally occupied. Israel is not generously offering to cede its land to Palestine but insisting that Palestine cede indisputably Palestinian lands to Israel. The only way Israel will ever acquire sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem is by agreeing to share or divide the city with Palestine. Any true peace requires some measure of justice.

It is high time for all involved to recognise and speak clearly about these fundamental realities. If a new “language of peace” can be propagated and take root during the Sharon interlude, the difficult months ahead will not be wasted and a true and lasting peace may finally be achievable when this interlude ends.

The writer is an international lawyer who writes frequently on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He contributed this article to the Jordan Times.