by Boris Shusteff
Speaking in the Knesset on April 22nd, Ariel Sharon made another pitch in favor of the expulsion of Jews from Jewish land. While reminiscent of numerous other speeches, this one deserves special attention, because this time the Israeli Prime Minister used as his main argument, to put it mildly, obfuscation.
Exploiting Israel's slavish attitude towards America, Sharon presented the retreat from Gaza as the only way to keep the superpower on Israel's side. He told the members of the Knesset that "since the establishment of the State, we have not received such vast and staunch political support, as was expressed in the President's letter." To prove this Sharon reiterated several points mentioned in the letter. He said that,
"The letter includes: unequivocal American recognition of Israel's right to secure and protective borders, and as it appears: 'defensible borders'. American recognition of Israel's right to defend itself by itself anywhere and to preserve its strength of deterrence against any threat, and American recognition of Israel's right to defend itself against active terror and terrorist organizations anywhere, including in areas from which Israel will withdraw."
One might easily refute Sharon's "vast" and "staunch" superlatives by simply reminding him that over 20 years ago another American President already expressed support for Israel that was no less "vast". On September 1, 1982 in his Address to the Nation on United States Policy for Peace in the Middle East, Ronald Reagan said that,
"The time has come for a new realism on the part of all the peoples of the Middle East. The State of Israel is an accomplished fact; it deserves unchallenged legitimacy within the community of nations. …It has a right to exist in peace behind secure and defensible borders; and it has a right to demand of its neighbors that they recognize those facts."
What support can be stronger than a declaration of Israel's unchallenged legitimacy within the community of nations and the right to "defensible borders?" Moreover, Reagan also promised that "the United States will not support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza."
In the letter that excited Sharon so much, President Bush wrote about this very state that, "the United States supports the establishment of a Palestinian state that is viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent." Thus it is not Sharon, but the Palestinian Arabs, who should jump for joy because they have never before received such vast and staunch political support for the establishment of their state, as expressed in the President's letter.
However, there is an even more important point here. What is so significant about America's recognition of Israel's right to have defensible borders and to defend itself? Why does no other country talk about this? Can we imagine even for a second the leaders of Belgium, Monaco, Lesotho, Latvia or any of dozens of other small countries speaking in their parliaments and boasting that America recognizes their right to exist?
Perhaps the Israeli Prime Minister is unaware of this, but Israel's right to exist (as well as that right for any other state) is enshrined in the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, which came into force on December 26, 1934. It declares in Article 3,
"The political existence of the state is independent of recognition by the other states. Even before recognition the state has the right to defend its integrity and independence, to provide for its conservation and prosperity, and consequently to organize itself as it sees fit. …The exercise of these rights has no other limitations than the exercise of the rights of other states according to international law."
This means that Sharon's claim that, "whoever wishes wide American support for Israel's right to defend itself… must support the Disengagement plan," is merely blackmail of Israeli citizens. America cannot withhold its support for Israel's right to defend itself, because by doing so it will be violating international law. Article 6 of the Montevideo Convention states that, "The recognition of a state merely signifies that the state which recognizes it accepts the personality of the other with all rights and duties determined by international law. Recognition is unconditional and irrevocable."
The Montevideo Convention says that "The fundamental rights of states are not susceptible of being affected in any manner" and that "No state has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another." Based on this, Sharon's words about America's "clear and historic stand …according to which there will be no return of refugees to Israel" are a pure soap bubble. It is Israel and only Israel that can decide about the return of refugees to the Jewish state. No other country, including America, has the right to intervene in this matter.
Actually, Sharon obscures the truth the most when he talks about America's "clear" stand on the issue. While the word "clear" was used in Bush's letter, it only added fog to the President's statement. Bush said "It seems clear … that an agreed … framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel." Reuven Koret perceptively wrote on April 18 that, " 'It seems clear' was deliberately chosen so that it has no binding force, as Colin Powell today clarified."
A senior White House administration official supported Powell's clarification during a briefing on April 14. Answering the question, "Does this statement close the door to right of return?" he replied,
"All the issues associated with right of return … are going to be -- have to be discussed in final status negotiations, and will be discussed there and have to be agreed there. That's the whole point. There is nothing that's been taken off the table in terms of final status negotiations."
So much for Sharon's assertions about America's "clear stand" that there will be no return of refugees to Israel.
A similar problem exists with Sharon's statement pertaining to the contentious issue of Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria. Sharon said in his Knesset speech,
"The United States believes that the large settlement blocks will remain under Israeli control in every arrangement. Negotiations regarding the final status agreement will take place between Israel and Palestinians. However, if during negotiations disagreement on these subjects should arise, the United States will support Israel's stance and this will allow Israel to be in better stand."
Here the Prime Minister again "misspoke" presenting the American position. Neither in his speech during Sharon's visit, nor in the letter that he gave to Sharon, did President Bush mention that in a disagreement America would support Israel's position. Moreover, White House spokesman Richard Boucher explained during a press briefing on April 15,
"The United States has not specified which population centers or settlements need to be taken into account, what the land swaps ought to be, how they might be done. … We know the Israeli Government position on this. …We know that the Palestinians have a different position. And many of those details and specifics need to be dealt with as they discuss final status. This is not the end of any negotiation. We are not setting down the outcome of any negotiation."
On April 14, the senior White House administrative official vehemently denied that it is possible to derive from American President's letter that "settlements are a fact and they're going to stay there." He said, "[the President] … didn't say the settlements are going to stay there. He did not say that. What he said is, the issue is a final status issue to be negotiated."
It would be unfair to say that Sharon's speech contained only misrepresentations. For example Sharon said that "The U.S. President has expressed his sweeping support of the plan. He views it as a historic step." While the word "sweeping" is again geared toward the main theme of Sharon's speech – obfuscation – he is absolutely correct that his decision to part with Jewish lands and expel from them Jews is a historic step. As Boucher said,
"No, there is no change in U.S. policy on settlements. And, in fact, what was significant …for the first time, in fact, Israel will evacuate settlements. And that is a prospect that has been sought for many years by Palestinians and Arab negotiators… So for the first time, Israel will, in fact, withdraw from some settlements… We have a very real prospect that something that Palestinians have always looked for, and that's the departure of Israeli settlers from territory that they believe and many others -- what UN resolutions have said should be Palestinian, that that could actually occur."
Alas, Boucher is absolutely correct. There is no change in U.S. policy on settlements, but there is a huge and drastic change in Israel's official policy on them, and Sharon's obfuscations cannot hide it. Israel is on the record that it is ready to relinquish Jewish land, and that it is eager to curtail the settlement enterprise. If one thinks that this is not a big deal, it is well worth recalling that settlements are at the core of the Jewish State. Israel itself is a major settlement and all Israelis are settlers.
Boris Shusteff is an engineer. He is also a research associate with the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies.