ONE OF THE special ironies of the crisis in the Middle East is that news reporters and commentators continue to refer to the West Bank as territory "occupied" by Israel. Even now, at a moment pregnant with apocalyptic possibilities triggered by Iraqi aggression, few informed observers acknowledge the obvious: Israel's continued administrative control of "the territories" (what Jerusalem refers to as Judea and Samaria) is indispensable to its national survival.
Had this land been transformed into an Arab state of Palestine sometime during the past 23 years, it would already have been taken over by Saddam Hussein and used to destroy Israel.
It is also essential to recall the history of the territories and the precise circumstances under which they came under Israeli control. Prior to 1967, when Israel's victory in a no-choice war of survival against Egypt, Syria and Jordan brought the West Bank under Israeli sovereignty, this land had been illegally occupied by Jordan. Thwarting Palestinian autonomy from 1948 to 1967, the Hashemite Kingdom -- which constitutes 77 percent of what had been British mandatory Palestine -- simply took advantage of Arab rejection of partition as voted by the United Nations.
What, exactly, was the U.N. partition plan of 1947? Significantly, it was to divide the remaining 23 percent of the mandate into a Jewish state and another Arab state. Almost four-fifths of Palestine had already been given over to create Transjordan (later renamed "Jordan") in 1922. This plan, which limited th proposed Jewish state to an area about half the size of San Bernardino County in California, was discarded by the Palestinians and the Arab states as "unfair."
There has never been a Palestinian state in the territories now administered by Israel. Contrary to the impression persistently created by newspaper and television references to "occupied territories," Israel's extraordinary victory in the 1967 Six Day War did not produce the end of "Palestine." Rather, it put an end to 19 years of Jordanian occupation characterized by systematic and widespread Arab brutalization of Palestinians.
But isn't Israel's current control of the West Bank still an occupation? Although Israel's record of administration is certainly more benign than Jordan's -- the world has conveniently forgotten King Hussein's slaughter of 10,000 Palestinians in September 1970 -- isn't it still a record of subjugation?
To answer these questions we must pay special attention to intent. In taking over the West Bank during its war of extermination against Israel in 1948 -- a war joined by four other Arab armies -- Jordan did so deliberately and as a consequence of its own acts of aggression. Israel, on the other hand, came to control the territories in 1967 unintentionally and in response to further planned aggression by Jordan, Egypt and Syria. Had the Arabs not rejected partition back in 1947 and accepted Jewish willingness to share with Palestinians a tiny piece of land, Israel would not have become an "occupier." Even the Arab rejection of partition would not have produced Israeli control over the West Bank if in 1967 a three-country coalition had refrained from dramatic preparations for yet another war of annihilation against the Jewish state.
In July of this year, only a month before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker called for an end to Israeli "intransigence" over the territories and called upon Jerusalem to end its designs for a "greater Israel." Directed toward a state that would be nine miles wide between Arab borders and the Mediterranean Sea after loss of the West Bank, this call revealed a total misunderstanding of what has happened in the Middle East since 1922 and a dangerous unawareness of what is currently at stake in that unfortunate region. Unless U.S. observers are content with language that regularly undermines Israel's security, opinion-makers should cease referring to the West Bank as "occupied."
Louis Rene Beres is the author of many books dealing with the Middle East and international law.