Mahmoud and the Wizards of Turtle Bay
Declarations and resolutions do not a state make.


Clifford D. May

At the United Nations last week, amid great fanfare and to thunderous applause, Mahmoud Abbas declared that the Palestinian people want a state of their own. The obvious question: What’s stopping them?

Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, the U.N. has no power to award statehood, except perhaps in the sense that the Wizard of Oz awarded courage to the Lion, a heart to the Tin Man, and a brain to the Scarecrow.

By definition, in both custom and international law, a state has specific attributes. Among them: It controls territory. Abbas and his Palestinian Authority (PA) do not control Gaza, one of the two principal territories comprising what could become a Palestinian state.

Since the brutal (if underreported) Palestinian civil war of 2007, in which Hamas gunmen slaughtered PA gunmen and, in the end, seized control of Gaza, Abbas has not set foot on that stretch of Mediterranean coast and, apparently, he dares not do so now. This is despite his performance at the U.N. and despite the fact that the PA recently concluded a pact with Hamas, a terrorist/jihadi organization funded by Iran and openly committed to exterminating Israel.

As for the West Bank, Israel can exercise superior power there if it chooses. When Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed Abbas on the U.N. podium, he made clear, not for the first time, that Israel is willing to give up its claims to most of the West Bank —  also known as Judea and Samaria — but only as a component of a durable peace achieved through negotiations.

Abbas, however, says he will resume negotiations only if concessions are made in advance and for nothing in return — not even recognition of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their ancient homeland.

In his speech to the Wizards of Turtle Bay, Abbas complained that the Palestinians have been denied statehood for over six decades. That is simply untrue. The area we call “Palestine” was for centuries a possession of the Ottoman Empire. Following World War I, the British Empire assumed authority. The British gave 75 percent of Palestine to an Arabian monarch who had been deprived of his throne when Ibn Saud conquered Mecca in 1925. That’s how the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan — named for the clan and the river — was born.

In 1947, the U.N. General Assembly voted to partition what was left of Palestine into two additional states: one for Jews, one for Arabs — not “Palestinians” because, in those days, the term actually referred to the Jews who had long been working to re-establish a national home in Palestine.

The Jews accepted the U.N.’s two-state solution. The Arabs rejected it. Both local Arab militias and armies from five neighboring Arab states immediately launched a war to drive the Jews into the sea.

That effort failed. Within the lines — not borders — where Arab forces were stopped, Israelis proceeded to build cities, farms, and factories as well as a vibrant democracy in which more than a million Arabs — those who decided neither to fight nor flee, as well as their descendants — today enjoy freedoms and rights unavailable in other countries of the Middle East.

In 1967, Israel’s Arab neighbors, led by Egypt and joined by Jordan, planned another war, again with the intention of killing off the Jewish state. Over six bloody days, the Israelis defended themselves and, this time, they pushed back the lines — taking Gaza from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan.

On many occasions, nations have annexed territory taken in defensive wars. The Israelis, however, thought it might be possible to trade land for peace. Over the past 34 years, that formula has failed — despite Israeli peace proposals in 2000 and 2008 that would have led to the creation of a Palestinian state in all of Gaza, in more than 95 percent of the West Bank, and in East Jerusalem as well.