The year 2017 looks set to be a particularly stormy year for the ever-raging clash of narratives between Israelis and Palestinians, as several anniversaries of seminal events in the conflict’s history coincide.
Back in September, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas urged the United Nations General Assembly to “declare 2017 as the international year to end the Israeli occupation of our land and our people, as we approach in June 2017 a half century of this abhorrent Israeli occupation.” In his Christmas message, issued last month, he repeated that the world is “about to mark 50 years of Israeli occupation, the longest military occupation in modern history.”
Pro-Palestinian activists worldwide can be expected to use this year’s big anniversary to draw international attention to what they will doubtlessly describe as an illegal, brutal occupation of an indigenous people by foreign invaders with no legitimate claim to the territory.
In Israel, many will pay tribute to what they’ll call the liberation of Judea and Samaria — the biblical terms for the West Bank — and the reunification of Jerusalem. Others will bemoan the fact that 50 years after the Six Day War, Israel is still perpetuating what they deem an unfair occupation of Palestinians lands.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely is clearly in the former camp. Israel should mark 2017 as a year of celebrations, using the coinciding anniversaries to highlight the Jewish people’s legal and moral rights to the Land of Israel and combat the notion it is illegally occupying the West Bank, she said in a recent interview.
“I want this year to be, first and foremost, a year of celebration. I want us to celebrate. I want the State of Israel to be proud of the fact that 50 years after the Six Day War, we achieved such amazing milestones in so many areas,” she told The Times of Israel. “This should be a year not only of showcasing the beauty of our history and our past, but also a year of looking toward the future.”
In 2017, Israel is in fact marking several milestones. It was exactly a century ago that the Balfour Declaration enshrined the United Kingdom’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In 1947, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181, known as the partition plan, which for the first time called for the creation of two states in British Mandate Palestine: one for Jews, one for Arabs.
Twenty years later, in 1967, Israel won the Six Day War and in the process captured the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel has since withdrawn from the Sinai and Gaza and annexed the Golan and East Jerusalem.
Celebrations of these events will be followed next year by festivities to celebrate the State of Israel’s 70th birthday in May 2018.
Hotovely said she has been working for months on a plan to mark this year’s anniversaries, including by creating a “gigantic exhibition” about the Jewish people’s historic ties to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria. In her vision, virtual reality technologies would be used to portray the past, present and future of Israel’s presence in these areas. Located in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, the exhibition would be open to foreign diplomats as well as the general public.
But Hotovely said the Foreign Ministry is currently fighting with the Finance Ministry over the budget for the planned events. The deputy minister wants the state’s budget to earmark NIS 100 million ($26 million) for events to celebrate the various anniversaries over the next two years, but so far no agreement has been reached.
The cabinet this week decided to allow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to raise foreign funds to help pay for the celebrations, but Hotovely said she preferred the money come directly from state coffers. Meanwhile, only one event this year, scheduled for Jerusalem Day — the day marking the city’s reunification in 1967 — is confirmed, she told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
In her discussions with professional ministry staff, Hotovely, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, envisioned a large permanent exhibition that would stress Israel’s connection to the West Bank, under the headline of “Coming home,” or “Returning to the Jewish homeland.”
Countering Israel’s detractors who consider the settlements an illegal land grab — and can thus be expected to mark 50 years since the beginning of “the occupation” — Hotovely wants to celebrate the settlements as the Jewish people’s legitimate return to its indigenous land.
“We’re often seen as a country without roots, a new country that represents an ancient people but whose roots in this land are very short. The idea is to bring us back to the bigger picture,” Hotovely said. “There is a terribly beautiful story of a nation that all these years remained connected to this land and we want to tell it with innovative visual means and open it for the greater public.”
Who did we ‘occupy’ the West Bank from?
As for whether diplomats in the Foreign Ministry, many of whom are more dovish than the deputy minister, will be happy with the plan, Hotovely doesn’t really care — she’s their boss.
“The question is not whether the officials agree with me. Their job is to carry out the policies that I determine,” she said. “I don’t need to convince them. I was elected to represent a policy that views the settlement enterprise a moral, just and legitimate project, and I was elected to protect it.”
An ardent opponent of Palestinian statehood who favors an Israeli annexation of the West Bank, Hotovely said that in the new year, the Foreign Ministry should combat the internationally accepted notion that Israel is occupying Palestinian territories.
The term “occupation” is legally incorrect, she argued. “What is occupation? Who did we occupy [the West Bank] from? It was not under Palestinian sovereignty. It is in no way possible to say it is a occupation in the regular sense of one country occupying another country.”
Last month’s UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which declared Israeli settlement outside the pre-1967 lines as having “no legal validity” and constituting “a flagrant violation under international law,” did nothing to change her mind.
“The more the world says the settlements aren’t legal, the more we say them to that, yes, they’re indeed legal,” she said Wednesday.
Since the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, Israeli diplomats have made no efforts to talk about Israel’s historic, legal and moral rights to the West Bank, she lamented.
“For many years, instead of arguing that the term is erroneous, we said that the two sides will resolve the issue in negotiations. This is not something that helps you declare that this [land] is mine, I belong here, that this is a place that I have rights to,” she said.
But in the current climate, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are not likely to be renewed, let alone produce a lasting peace agreement, Hotovely added. The Palestinians are not interested in bilateral talks because they can reach their objectives by appealing to the international community to force Israel into concessions, she posited.
Therefore, she said, the only response to this Palestinian tactic is to create “a new paradigm” — innovative ideas that, according to her, no longer include a Palestinian state in the West Bank.
‘Just because it’s a difficult mission doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tackle it’
Given the regional turmoil, “more and more people in the world” understand that no Palestinian state will come into being anytime soon, she said. “This includes people who were involved in the Oslo Accords. What happened in the Middle East over the last five years challenges their basic understanding of the peace process.”
Foreign dignitaries she meets in her capacity as deputy foreign minister are “embarrassed” when she asks them what would replace Israeli settlements — Islamic State or Hamas? — Hotovely said. “They don’t have a good answer to give me.”
But in order to change their position, prevalent in the international community, that the settlements are illegal, Israeli diplomats have to be ready to defend their legitimacy and not merely say they are an issue to be dealt with in future negotiations, she said.
“Just because it’s a difficult mission doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tackle it.”
Sooner or later, the world will start believing in the settlements’ legitimacy, Hotovely vowed. Europe saw decades of bloody conflicts before peace was achieved, and so Europeans should not seek a “Band-aid solution” for the Middle East, where Jews are indigenous, she argued.
“European colonial powers went abroad to expand their territory and to rule over other nations. We didn’t come here as colonialists; this is the Jews’ only country. I don’t think they have the moral right to come and complain to us. All we do is settle our land.”
Apologizing for the comparison, she said that during World War II the free world also needed “time to understand” what the Nazis were up to and to starting fighting them. “Europe’s enlightened countries were conquered one after the other by the Nazis. They raised a white flag and didn’t even try to fight for their rights,” she said.
“With all due respect, the fact that the world collectively thinks a certain way doesn’t make it right, or smart. History shows us time and again that it’s OK to have independent views.”