By: David Parsons, ICEJ VP & Senior Spokesman

Posted on: 24 Apr 2020

After three elections and seventeen months of political deadlock, it was a relief for most Israelis this week when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and rival Benny Gantz finally agreed on a deal to form a unity government. The coalition agreement hinges around a rotation formula between the two rivals, and even though there are still many hurdles to overcome before the new government can be sworn in, the logjam does appear to be broken. Yet the broad coalition will instantly face some steep challenges, such as ending the Coronavirus lockdowns, reviving a shuttered economy, and deciding whether to annex parts of Judea/Samaria under the favorable terms of the Trump peace plan. The annexation quandary could prove especially thorny, for several reasons.

To begin with, the national religious camp has been pressuring Netanyahu to forge ahead with his recent campaign promise to annex the Jordan Valley, plus the larger settlement blocs. Some contend it is especially critical to do so while US President Donald Trump is still in the White House. But others insist such a move could easily backfire, as Trump may lose his re-election bid come November and the next US president might come down hard on Israel. And even if he wins re-election, annexing lands under Trump’s plan also would require Israel to accept a demilitarized Palestinian state in the rest of the West Bank. Meanwhile, the Palestinians can be expected to vehemently oppose any annexation moves. But perhaps the biggest worry is that annexation of the Jordan Valley could endanger Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan and even destabilize the Kingdom due to anger among its Palestinian majority.

No matter how this annexation decision plays out over coming months, the irony is that history has somehow cornered Israel into an internal debate about annexing lands that it already owns. So how did this come about?

Remember San Remo
Among the recent casualties of the Coronavirus threat were well-laid plans to celebrate the centennial of the San Remo Conference, a diplomatic conclave which took place exactly 100 years ago this week and served as a monumental moment in the modern-day rebirth of Israel as a nation. It was at San Remo that the international community first recognized the Jewish people’s historic right to reconstitute their national sovereignty in their ancestral homeland – which included what we now call the West Bank. At the end of World War One, the victorious Allied Powers met with the vanquished German side at the Palace of Versailles in 1919 and agreed on how to redraw the map of Europe. They then gathered a second time the following spring in San Remo to sit with the defeated Turks and divvy up the lands the Ottomans had just lost in the Middle East.

San Remo is a gem of the Italian Riviera. In April, the orange trees begin blossoming and sea breezes carry the sweet scents up the green hillsides. As key world leaders gathered there in late April 1920, it must have provided an intoxicating atmosphere in which to finally unwind from four horrible years of war and two years of the even deadlier Spanish flu pandemic. When the San Remo delegates did get down to business, the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Japan – with American foreknowledge and acquiescence – made some fateful decisions which still resonate to this day. These ‘Principal Allied Powers’ did an unusual thing at San Remo. Rather than claiming lands conquered in war as their own territory, as with most victors before them, they decided to maintain possession of the Ottoman lands and hold the sovereign title in trust for the benefit of the local inhabitants until they were ready to govern themselves. This was accomplished through the novel concept of the mandate system. In fact, the San Remo conference actually marks a self-imposed end of the colonial era. The age of empires exploiting the populations and resources of foreign lands for their own enrichment was passing. US president Woodrow Wilsonian was advocating freedom and self-determination for native peoples worldwide. And the European powers responded with the concept of mandates, or trusteeships, to help them develop and mature as free, self-governing nations. Credit for the mandate concept belongs to Mark Sykes (of the secret Sykes-Picot accord) and more directly to Jan Christiaan Smuts, a quite remarkable figure. He fought against the British as a commander of South African forces in the Second Boer War, only to later serve as a member of the British cabinet. He was the only person to sign both peace treaties ending the First and Second World wars. Smuts also became a champion of respecting and empowering native peoples, and he had a special affinity for the Jewish people. In 1919, Smuts had drafted a memorandum setting out the mandate concept, which later became Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations. This document, first unveiled at San Remo, specifically mentions Palestine as a mandated territory to be developed into a Jewish state in accordance with the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

At San Remo, the allied powers agreed to apply the mandate system to the vacated Ottoman territories. The British were assigned trusteeships over Palestine (including Transjordan) and “Mesopotamia” (later Iraq), while the French were given guardianship over the areas of today’s Syria and Lebanon. The mandatory powers were to hold sovereign title in trust for the native peoples and help them progress towards self-rule. And, quite importantly, the Jewish people were recognized as indigenous to Palestine to the same degree as the Arab peoples were considered indigenous to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. Further, the national beneficiaries of the Palestine mandate were deemed to be the entire Jewish people, even those still living in exile. These decisions were encapsulated in the San Remo resolutions, and two years later they were affirmed by the League of Nations when approving the British and French mandates in the region. So the British recognized the pre-existing right and claim of the Jewish people to the historic Land of Israel in the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which was then endorsed by other leading world powers at San Remo in 1920, and finally affirmed by the broader League of Nations in 1922. The United States promptly endorsed Britain’s Mandate in Palestine, both in a joint act of Congress in 1922 and in a treaty with Great Britain two years later, and pledged to be a guarantor of its provisions, which included the obligation to encourage “close settlement of Jews on the land.” Nothing since has nullified the Jewish right and title to the entire lands west of the Jordan River. Not the UN Partition Plan of 1947, which was rejected by the Arabs. Not even the Oslo accords (although it certainly helps when Israel asserts more vigorously its title to Judea/Samaria).

As Noble as the Neighbors
What all this means is that the nation and people of Israel are now considering whether to annex something they already own. The Jewish people may have lost possession of the West Bank during the 19 years it was (illegally) occupied by Jordan, but they never lost their sovereign title to it. The state of Israel came back into possession of these territories in 1967, and it is just that the world has been trying to talk them out of it ever since.

Yet those who question or deny Israel’s legal claim to Judea/Samaria need to realize that Israel’s title to this land is just as solid as the sovereign claims of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq to their own lands. The reason is that they all can be traced back to a “common grantor.”

Under this legal principle, the source and quality of one man’s title to a piece of land is considered to be just as good as his neighbors if they can both trace title back to the same grantor in the same basic transaction. In this case, Israel can trace its claim of ownership to Judea/Samaria back to the same decisionmakers, meeting at the same San Remo conference and relying on the very same principles of international law which created the sovereign states of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

So if Damascus is truly Syrian, if the Lebanese belong in Beirut, and the Iraqi people own the land between the two rivers, then the Jewish people have every right to lay claim to the Jordan Valley as their home.