By Sidney Zion, now back as a Daily News columnist, has covered the Middle
East since the Six Day War for, among others, The New York Times, New York
Post, Harper’s and New York Magazine. The author of several books, including
‘Read All About It: The Collected Adventures of a Maverick Reporter’ and ‘Trust
Your Mother but Cut the Cards,’ he won the Overseas Press Club award, with
Uri Dan, in 1979 for a series in The New York Times Magazine titled ‘Untold
Story of the Mideast Talks.’
July 31, 2003.
The only thing about the Middle East that goes without argument and even
without saying is that the Palestinian Arabs are a stateless, homeless people.
You can’t pick a fight on that anywhere in the world. The fact that four
wars have been fought for the ostensible purpose of resolving the plight of the
Palestinians has solidified this consensus. Everyone believes it.
The Oslo peace process lies in ruin, and the road map plan is off to a shaky
start, due to the inability of the parties involved to agree on a formulation of
principles concerning the right, or lack thereof, of the Palestinians to determine
their own future on the West Bank of the river Jordan — the area universally
regarded as the historic, political, geographic, and demographic landmass of
But even as the arguments rage over whether or how this should or can be
accomplished – a state, a homeland, an entity? – a lot of well-intentioned people
will tell you that there is not now and never has been a Palestinian nation.
The problem with this notion is that it is not true. There is and has been a
Palestinian nation since May 14, 1946 – only two years to the day before there
was an Israeli nation.
Originally called the Kingdom of Transjordan, that nation is now the Kingdom of
Jordan. It lives on the East Bank of the Jordan River and comprises 80 percent
of the historic, political, geographic, and demographic landmass of Palestine. It
has a population of three million people, virtually all of whom were either born
there or arrived there from the other 20 percent of Palestine – Israel plus the
‘occupied territories’ known as the ‘West Bank’.
Palestine, then, includes both sides of the Jordan River, bounded on the
west by the Mediterranean, on the east by Saudi Arabia and Iraq, on the south
of Egypt, on the north by Syria and Lebanon.
These boundaries were universally acknowledged from the end of World War I
until 1946, when Great Britain created by fiat the independent Kingdom of
Transjordan – thus lopping off four- fifths of Palestine and handing it to the
Arabs, in direct violation of the mandate over the territory granted to Great
Britain by the League of Nations.
In the years since, Jordan has been recognized as a nation separate and apart
from Palestine, its only connection being its role as the principal ‘host country’
for Palestinian refugees displaced by the creation of Israel.
While Israel won its independence through revolution against the British
colonialists, it is viewed as a creature of the United Nations, owing its existence
to a world guilt-ridden over the Holocaust.
Since its victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel – it is said – now controls
the whole of Palestine. Its refusal to cede completely the territory occupied
after that war – from East Jerusalem to the Jordan River, plus the Gaza Strip – is
therefore considered the bar to national rights or ‘self-determination’ of the
So goes the conventional wisdom of much of the world, and, because it is so
widely believed, it is naturally thought to be fair and objective. No matter that it
is based on an incredible distortion of history, politics, geography, and
Yet, unless this distortion is corrected, there is little hope for anything close to
enduring Middle East peace. A brief look at relatively recent events puts the
problem in perspective.
A Gift For Abdullah
Before World War I, the word ‘Palestine’ had no clear-cut geographical
denotation and represented no political identity. In 1920, however, the Allied
powers conferred on Great Britain a ‘mandate’ over the territory formerly
occupied by Turkey. It was called the Palestine Mandate and included the land
on both sides of the Jordan River.
This mandate was confirmed by the League of Nations in 1922 and
remained unchanged during the League`s lifetime.
The mandate incorporated the Balfour Declaration, the famous 1917
proclamation by which Great Britain committed itself to provide a homeland in
Palestine for the Jewish people; it did not provide a homeland for the Arabs
living there, but it did protect their ‘civil and religious,’ although not their
However, two months after the League of Nations approved the mandate,
Winston Churchill, then Britain`s colonial secretary, changed the rules of the
“One afternoon in Cairo,” as Churchill later boasted, he simply took all
the land east of the Jordan River and inserted the Hashemite Abdullah – the
great-grandfather of the present King Abdullah – as its emir.
But he did not free it from the mandate, and the people living on the East Bank
were in all respects Palestinians. The people living there traveled under
Palestinian passports, as did the Jews and Arabs living on the West Bank. But
the whole country was effectively ruled by Britain.
Why did Churchill do it? Because Abdullah was bitterly disappointed that he
hadn’t been chosen by the British as king- designate of Iraq – a post that went
to his brother. Churchill wanted to stroke Abdullah’s ego and at the same time
serve the empire.
But, according to Britain’s East Bank representative, Sir Alec Kirkbride, this
land, constituting 80 percent of the mandate, was “intended to serve as a
reserve of land for use in the resettlement of Arabs once the National Home for
the Jews in Palestine, which they were pledged to support, became an
accomplished fact. There was no intention at that stage of forming the territory
east of the river Jordan into an independent Arab state.”
Indeed, Churchill persuaded the Zionists to go along with the suspension of
Jewish immigration to the East Bank on the grounds that this would mollify the
indigenous Arab population on the West Bank – then 200,000 strong – and thus
make possible a Jewish homeland west of the Jordan.
Of course, it did no such thing; instead, it whetted Arab appetites for the whole
of Palestine, an objective which was nearly achieved several time: the
Palestinian Arab uprising against the Jews in 1936; the British White Paper of
1939, which cut off the Jewish immigration to the Holy Land, locking European
Jews in with Hitler; and the united Arab war against the newly proclaimed
State of Israel in 1948.
Until 1946, however, Transjordan remained under the British Palestine Mandate.
The English declared Transjordan an independent entity without a soupcon of
As a result, what began in 1920 as a mandate to turn Palestine into a Jewish
homeland turned into a reverse Balfour Declaration, creating an Arab nation in
four-fifths of Palestine and leaving the Jews to fight for statehood against the
Arabs on the West Bank.
The upshot: Jordan is now considered an immutable entity, as distinct from
Palestine as are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.
But a country whose population is virtually all Palestinian can hardly be
considered as something less than a Palestinian nation.
Still, the notion that Jordan has nothing to do with Palestine is so deeply
embedded that it comes as no real surprise that The New York Times and the
rest of the media elite treat it as a world apart.
This is hardly something new, of course; readers of a certain age and long
memory may recall that the Times took this approach as least as far back as the
mid-1970`s when, in a three- part series on the Palestinians, the paper drew
historical maps cutting Transjordan out of the British mandate — and repeated
the fiction that Israel occupied the whole of Palestine.
Ironically, while the Times was breast-beating over the ‘stateless’ Palestinians,
the late left-wing journalist I.F. Stone was complaining in the New York Review
of Books that Jewish dissidents, like himself, could not get a word in edgewise
in behalf of Palestinian nationhood.
Stone knew all about the two banks of the Jordan, as his piece
indicated. It seems, however, that it didn’t register with him; he suggested
neither that the Palestinians already have a state nor that the one thing the
American press never reports is the fact that Jordan is Palestine.
On the other hand, the Israeli government doesn’t say it either, and a story
goes with that fact.
Jordan Vs. Palestine
When the Zionists agreed in 1922 to suspend immigration to the East Bank, in
accordance with Churchill`s request, Vladimir Jabotinsky signed on.
But Jabotinsky — the elegant, fiery Zionist leader who later became the
father of the underground Irgun Zvai Leumi and the ‘eagle’ of its commander,
Menachem Begin — changed his mind about the deal a year later after it became
clear that the Jews had traded away most of the mandate for nothing.
The Establishment Zionists, however, stuck with the British ever after.
“There are no Palestinians, there are only Jordanians,” said Golda Meir
again and again.
Of course, she was wrong. In fact, there are no Jordanians, only Palestinians.
One reason why Golda insisted on the opposite – as everyone with a passing
knowledge of Zionist politics understands – was that her political enemy
Jabotinsky was on the other side.
Meir and her Mapai party, which ruled Israel from the pre- state days until Begin
was elected prime minister in 1977, hated Jabotinsky and his followers,
considering them all ‘fascists.’
The Jabotinsky vision held that both sides of the Jordan belonged to
Israel; he wrote a song about it: “The West Bank is ours, and the East Bank is
Menachem Begin marched to this tune most of his life. For domestic political
reasons he dropped it in his later years, but it was surprising, to say the least,
that he did not even allude to it after he became prime minister.
Had he insisted on educating the world about the true history of Palestine,
Begin could have cleared up the confusion and made a contribution toward
Thus, if the world were to understand that Israel occupies only 20
percent of Palestine rather than 100 percent, would it not make a difference?
If it became clear that the Arab refugees and their children who crossed over to
Jordan in 1948 did not enter a ‘host country’ but rather the Arab part of their
own country, would it not make a difference?
Of course it would make a difference.
Israel is being robbed of its political, historic, and geographic legitimacy while
seeming to rob the Palestinians of a nation it already has.
“If there is a Palestine, there can also be an Israel,” said the late Peter Bergson,
who led the Hebrew Liberation Movement in the 1940`s.
“But if we paint Jordan as if it`s just another Arab nation, as if it’s Saudi
Arabia, then the fight is on for the extinction of Israel in stages.”
“Because,” Bergson added, “if we insist that the whole of Palestine is the West
Bank, anything we return is simply the fruit of a crime. But if we tell the truth, if
we point out that 80 percent of the land is already in the hands of the
Palestinian Arabs, everyone – here and around the world – will see this dispute
for what it is.”
“And what is it but an argument over boundaries?….Every boundary
disagreement in history has been settled by drawing new lines. But you can’t
settle it if someone thinks his nationhood has been ripped off.”
If all this sounds theoretical, impractical, unpragmatic, it’s the opposite.
A Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza is not economically viable
without at least a condominium arrangement with Jordan. This even in the
unlikely event that Israel retreats to its pre-Six Day War borders.
If left amputated from their true homeland, Jordan, the Palestinians will seek
lebensraum, either toward the Mediterranean or across the Jordan River.
Obviously, they would be no match for Israel, but the king of Jordan will look
like a fine target to a bankrupted Palestinian regime.
Which is exactly why Abdullah, like his late father before him, fears a
Palestinian state, no matter what he says publicly.
Indeed, no neighboring Arab nation really wants a separate state on the
West Bank – not Egypt, not Saudi Arabia, not Syria, not Lebanon.
Some of them say they want it, but whosoever accepts rhetoric in the Middle
East belongs in the U.S. State Department.