The Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, seen from the Mount of Olives
Having done family Christmases for more decades than I care to remember, I decided to have change in 2016, and to become a refugee from Christmas – and indeed from New Year. Taking a trusty companion, I set off to Israel around December 18th. The destination was partly dictated by an International Conference in Jerusalem at which I had been invited to speak.
Having been raised (I have to admit it) in a church-going family, I was familiar from childhood with the names of all those locations in which the history of the Jews, and the events in the Gospels, took place. Jerusalem. Galilee. Bethlehem. Jericho. Beersheba. Nazareth. But the almost surreal realisation on visiting Israel is that these are not merely ancient names from the mists of history, but real places. They are names on motorway signposts. The Mount of Olives is not just a name in story book, but a real mountain (or at least, a real hill), where I stood and looked across to the disputed City of Jerusalem, and to the temple Mount, now dominated by the gilded dome of the Al Aqsa mosque.
I visited Bethlehem on December 24th. It is a predominantly Christian city, and there were parades and marching bands in preparation for Christmas festivities (so I did not avoid the event entirely).
It is also remarkable to note that so many of these familiar locations, which are at the heart of Jewish and indeed Christian history, are in what is now known as the “West Bank”. The areas of Judea and Samaria, on the west bank of the River Jordan, are regarded by the UN as “occupied territories”.
It is easy to understand the enormous emotional ties which Jewish people have to these areas. According to tradition, the land was given by God to Abraham and his descendants in perpetuity. It is also remarkable the extent to which prophesies in the old Testament have been fulfilled. Jeremiah 31:5 says “Thou shalt yet plant vines upon the mountains of Samaria: the planters shall plant, and shall eat them as common things”. And indeed I visited a recently planted vineyard on the hills of Samaria, which until the vineyard came had been desert, and I drank the wine, and it was very good. There is now a flourishing wine industry across Israel.
Or take Isaiah 35:1: “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose”. The Israelis have made huge strides in agriculture and water management, and are indeed showing that the desert can blossom.
I know of no other people who have returned to their ancestral lands after an absence of nearly two millennia. Yet of course it is not clear that such a people, even having been forcibly removed from their lands around AD70, have an unchallenged right to return many centuries later. Many people will be unmoved by Old Testament prophecies and divine promises, and will question their relevance in the 21st century. So by what right does Israel claim the land, with or without Judea and Samaria?
First of all, those on the left in Britain who question Israel’s right to exist would do well to remember the Balfour declaration. It was this country, Britain, with the later support of the League of Nations, which promised the Jewish people a home in the Holy Land. This was a formal decision of the international community – whatever second thoughts it may be having at the moment.
Secondly, the right of conquest. The Jews may have been promised the land, but they also had to fight for it. I spent a few days in Eilat, on the southernmost point in Israel, and visited the town museum, where they remember the Uvda battle in 1948 in the Arab/Israeli war, which effectively delivered Eilat to the state of Israel. Surrounded by enemies committed to their destruction, they have fought again and again – with remarkable success – for survival. They have offered land-for-peace deals to their neighbours which have been summarily rejected on ideological grounds.
Thirdly, they have in a very real sense created a nation from a desert. Yes of course there were communities living in the area before 1948. Yet in terms of creating a nation, building infrastructure, and agriculture, and a vibrant economy, the Israelis have proved themselves worthy custodians of the territory. They have built an extraordinarily successful market-led economy based on democracy and the rule of law – and are effectively the only country in the region to have done so. As a consequence, they are able to deliver living standards and a degree of security which are the envy of neighbouring states.
We now see calls for various sanctions against Israel, because it is building and developing the Judea/Samaria areas. There is a BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) campaign. The EU is calling for products from Judea/Samaria to be labelled – a deliberate device to promote a boycott – despite the fact that factories and Israeli investment in the region are providing well-paid jobs for Palestinian Arabs, and promoting cooperation and integration. Arabs and Jews work side by side in these factories. It is hardly surprising that Palestinian Arabs are happy to work in Israeli-owned factories in Judea/Samaria, given the higher salaries and greater security on offer. Perhaps still worse, some academics in the UK are calling for a boycott of Israeli universities. I myself visited Ariel University in Samaria, and saw Jewish and Arab students studying together. Surely universities should be promoting dialogue, not blocking it.
There are many who call for “a two-state solution”, and most assume that this means giving Judea/Samaria to the Palestinians. Indeed I myself thought that this was the way forward, until I went to Israel and saw for myself. So why not a two-sate solution?
The first problem is land area. Israel is around 20,700 km2. The four adjacent Arab countries together have a land area of 1,284,000 km2. This makes the size of Israel just over 6% of the average of its neighbours, or 1.6% of the size of the four taken together. Israel has more than four times the population density of its neighbours’ average.
The second problem is an existential one. If you exclude Judea & Samaria, the width of Israel from east to west, at the level of Tel Aviv, is less than ten miles. The hills of Samaria command a clear view across Tel Aviv, including Ben Gurion International airport. All the way to the sea. I have stood on those hills and watched the planes landing at Ben Gurion. If you allow the Palestinian authority to control those hills, you will have Hezbollah rockets on them, and the whole heartland of Israel, including the airport, will be in the firing line. I’m no military strategist, but it seems clear to me that the State of Israel could not survive in those circumstances.
Thirdly, development. If you say that Israel cannot have “settlements” (read “new housing development”) in what amounts to Tel Aviv’s suburbs, you put a tourniquet – a garrotte – around the neck of Israel’s economic development. It’s like telling the City of London that it can’t expect new housing in Hammersmith. I don’t believe that the Israelis should accept that, and I wouldn’t expect them to.
I think that the only solution, however unsatisfactory, is to leave Israel in control of Judea/Samaria, with an appropriate level of devolution and local autonomy for Arab-majority areas. And this, in fact, is what exists today. Certainly it appears that President-elect Donald Trump has effectively killed the two-state solution by nominating David Friedman as his Ambassador to Israel. Friedman has openly called for a one-state solution. In conclusion, one more quotation: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee”.