“Only Free Men Can Negotiate”

(c) 2000, Jordan White


October 16, 2000


            In 1988, the imprisoned African leader Nelson Mandela was offered his freedom if he agreed to accept certain conditions imposed by his jailers.  He flatly refused the offer.  Prisoners, he said, cannot enter into contracts.  Only free men can negotiate.


            From time to time I am asked why I harp on Israel’s total return of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, and why I do not call for the return of all of historical Palestine to its rightful owners. 


            There are many answers to this, and it’s a profound question, so I don’t want to give a glib answer.  Let me make myself clear:  I am not speaking for the Palestinian people as their representative.  I am not, by the same token, telling them what they should do because I have some kind of insight that they do not have.  I am merely reiterating what has been already decided under international law, and those legal documents provide the Palestinians with their strongest position for achieving the goals of  freedom and autonomy they claim to hold dear.


            The problem comes in when we try to implement the working out of these goals.  The Palestinians come to the bargaining table with very little leverage to use against Israel’s powerful position.  Traditional, historical ( “river to the sea”) Palestine being returned to the Palestinians  is not something I am personally against as much as I feel that now is not the time to push for this.  To put it succinctly and in keeping with my New York background:  It aint-a gonna  happen.


            Israel (excluding the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem) is a legitimate state, recognized by the US, the EU, and so on.  It is a legal member of the UN. It has trade agreements and military pacts all over the world.   Sure, it could be overthrown under the right circumstances, but personally, I don’t think this is the road to lasting peace and prosperity in the region.  It can only lead to a situation historians refer to as a “scorched earth” policy. 


            Is the goal of winning back all of traditional Palestine achievable?  Yes, most likely, it could be done. But it will take time.   I understand that Palestinians are losing patience with the failing peace processes and the continued brutality of the Israeli occupation, but, if they truly want to achieve their goals and not end up with a bankrupt, ruined “scorched-earth” state, they need to emulate Mandela’s courageous stand. 


            For now, and just for now, be willing to table the idea of going after the land “between the river and the sea”.  Insist upon the complete and total ownership of the land already legally in Palestinian hands:  the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.  DECLARE A STATE THERE, WITH JERUSALEM AS ITS CAPITAL.  Finish the port of Gaza, and begin to build a strong, democratic, economically independent state.  Elect some real leaders who can get the job done.  Now there is something to bargain with, and someone to do the bargaining.  Now the prisoner is free, and can enter into contracts and negotiate. 


            Negotiate firm economic and military pacts with other states.  Make economic and trade agreements with anyone who will sign one (excluding nations with poor human rights records).  Establish a thriving tourist trade and welcome pilgrims of all faiths.  Build roads and schools, and offer at least a minimum of health care to all. 


            Now would be the time to pull out all of those Ottoman deeds to places in Jaffa, Ramla, Nazareth and Haifa.  Now is the time to go to international court and get all of those pieces of real estate returned to their rightful owner.  If the Israelis have built a skyscraper on the land that legally belongs to someone else, it will have to come down.  If they built a road on that land, it will have to be ripped out. If a synagogue is there, it will have to go. And, if enough of the land is proven to be legally owned by Palestinians, an international court may well return all of it to them, based on the laws pertaining to self-determination of a people to live on their own lands. An independent, strong, viable Palestinian state will have the leverage and power to pursue this and bring it about. 


            Remember the words of Nelson Mandela: only free men can negotiate.  Right now, Palestinians are not free.  Until they are, they will have only the crumbs that fall from the table of the feasting Israelis.  And measly crumbs they are.