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Pro-Palestinian demonstrators have been much criticised for the slogan 'From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.' It is said that this is a denial of Israel's right to exist. And maybe it is. But in the original 1977 manifesto of the Likud Party - the party of Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, we have this: 'between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.' And in the 'decisive plan' for a final settlement of the conflict presented in 2017 by the current Minister of Finance in the Israeli government, Bezalel Smotrich, we read: 'We will make it clear that our national ambition for a Jewish state from the river to the sea is an accomplished fact, a fact not open to discussion or negotiation.'

And of course, whatever about 'discussion or negotiation', Smotrich is right to say that the 'Jewish state from the river to the sea' is an accomplished fact. There is only one government exercising sovereignty over the whole area from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. There is only one state and that is why it is possible to talk about an 'apartheid state.' As the Israel historian Benny Morris has pointed out, Israel within its pre-1967 borders is not an apartheid state, though it's not far off. The Palestinians who remained in the area after the ethnic cleansing of 1948 possess, at least in theory, full citizenship. It wouldn't be true to say that they possess equal citizenship. Their position resembles perhaps an even worse form of second class citizenship than that previously enjoyed by Catholics in Northern Ireland but that still isn't 'apartheid'. Apartheid, as Benny Morris points out, translates as 'separation'. In a recent BBC interview, done in the wake of the Hamas action of October 7th, the former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, said: 'I will never lose eye contact with the ultimate objective, which is to separate ourselves from the Palestinians …'

One can see that that, part of the Israeli secularist Labour Party tradition, is different from the position of Likud or Smotrich. And yet it is not very different. Barak continues somewhat ungrammatically: 'having Israel which have probably 80% of the settlers holding strategic assets on several [sic] percent of the West Bank side by side with the Palestinian demilitarised viable state.'

That is the 'two state solution' as envisaged by one of its few remaining champions among Israeli Jews. A 'viable' Palestinian state deprived of the means of defending itself. It falls rather short of the 'two state solution' to which President Biden still gives lip service: 'two peoples living side by side with equal measures of freedom, opportunity and dignity.' The separation envisaged by Barak is classic apartheid - a bantustan. It isn't a fully sovereign state enjoying 'equal measures of freedom, opportunity and dignity' with the state of Israel. Israel would still exercise a monopoly of armed force and control over strategic assets on the 'Palestinian' territory. A fully sovereign Palestinian state would have the right to develop its own army to a level capable of repelling its most probable adversary; it would have full control over everyone living within its borders, including Jewish settlers if they were still there; and it would have free access to other countries in the world including its neighbour Jordan - Ehud Barak at his most conciliatory in the Camp David talks insisted that Israel should control the border between 'Palestine' and Jordan.

Even after the current slaughter taking place in Gaza it is generally assumed that the whole Palestinian population in the area from the river to the sea is not far off the numbers of the Jewish population - if it has not already surpassed it. If we add the numbers of those living in refugee camps outside Israel - and the return of the refugees is a fundamental Palestinian demand - then the Palestinian majority is overwhelming. (1) This population, with its free military capacity and free relations with the rest of the Arab/Muslim world, including Jordan, would be crammed into something like 20% of the total area, with no possibility of accommodating the refugees, beside a state which they knew was built on the spoliation and expulsion of their own population back in 1948. Not only would the Jews not accept such a state of affairs they would in my view have been stupid to accept it. It would represent a constant threat, more powerful than the threat they suffer at the present time.

(1) This has of course been the problem for Zionism since the beginning. Jabotinsky's 'iron wall' strategy was based on the idea that the Jews would intimidate the Arabs by sheer force of numbers. But in 1947, at the time of the UN partition plan, the Jews were still  a distinct minority - 1,293,000 Palestinians (Muslim and Christian) and 608,000 Jews, with the Jews owning only about 6 or 7% of the land. Hence the need to expel and dispossess some 7-800,000 people and to give up hope (temporarily at least) of taking the West Bank. 

In their own history, when David Ben-Gurion formally accepted the UN 1947 partition plan it was with the clear understanding that the possession of a state, however truncated it might be compared to his ambitions, would, together with the departure of the British, serve as a launching pad for the further acquisition of territory. He had already said, back in 1937:  'Erect a Jewish state at once, even if it is not in the whole land. The rest will come in the course of time.' It is perfectly reasonable to assume that Yasser Arafat, when he agreed to the deeply unjust Oslo plan, had much the same thought in mind. It is also reasonable to assume that the Israeli government, which immediately began planting settlers in the areas of the West Bank under its control, never seriously considered the possibility of allowing a genuine, truly sovereign Palestinian state to emerge on that territory.

After 1967 they had been able to go along with the fiction that the Palestinians in the West Bank were still Jordanian citizens. But in 1988, in the context of the first intifada, Jordan renounced its claim to sovereignty over the area (with the exception of its guardianship of the Muslim holy places) and recognised its old enemy, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The Jews were faced with a choice between granting the West Bank Palestinians Israeli citizenship rights or bringing the PLO back into the picture and using them to keep the Palestinians separate from the Israeli political system. The PLO, sitting in Tunisia, were by now so weak after their expulsion from Lebanon, that this appeared to them like a gift from Heaven.

In pursuit of this policy the secularist Jews, principally concerned as they were with security, were willing in principle to hand over day to day management of a large part of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority - of course under rigorous Israeli military surveillance. Unfortunately, though, in the eyes of Jews who took seriously the notion that they were returning to the land given them by God, this land, known to Jordan as its own 'West Bank', was 'Judaea-Samaria', the heartland of the Biblical Jewish territory. It should be said that there were Jewish settlements in the West Bank prior to Oslo, mainly, so far as I can see, people who simply wanted to be living near the holy sites mentioned in the Bible (I'm using the Christian term. The Jewish term for the whole text known to Christians as the 'Old Testament' is the Tanakh) - Hebron, Shiloh, Jericho, Nablus (the Biblical Shechem). Similarly East Jerusalem was the old Jerusalem with its Christian, Jewish and Muslim holy sites and, consequently, a substantial Orthodox Jewish population whose motives had historically been more religious than political. I don't know the details - the extent to which the departure was a matter of deliberate Jordanian policy, but the fact is that after 1948 there were very few Jews, if any, left in the area. I do know that the main synagogue in East Jerusalem, already damaged like many other holy sites in the fighting, was finally and deliberately dynamited by the Jordanians. It is also interesting to note that during the period of Jordanian rule the word 'Palestinian' was taboo. That having been said, I remember that the late Peter Coleridge, a good friend of mine who had been involved in building the UN supervised refugee camps for the Palestinians expelled in 1967, was impressed by the dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit of the West Bank under Jordanian rule.