Rainbow on Temple Mount
Rainbow on Temple MountYonatan Sindel/Flash90

Israeli sovereignty, the basis for its national existence as a Jewish state, the homeland of the Jewish People, is defined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948. It incorporated much of UN Resolution 181, passed in1947, including the rights of its non-Jewish residents, and, following the war in 1948-9, Israel was accepted as a member state of the United Nations.

The result of the war, however, was inconclusive. Israel and the Arab countries that had attacked Israel agreed to a cease-fire and an Armistice was signed based on temporary – de facto, not de jure ‘borders.’ The areas that were conquered by Egypt, Jordan and Syria became known as “the West Bank.” Local Arab terrorists, and those from neighboring countries, however, continued to attack Jews.

Since the beginning of its existence as a state, therefore, Israel was faced with a problem: what to do with Arabs who lived under its jurisdiction and did not accept Israeli sovereignty; many, if not most still do not. For them, Israel’s survival and victory in the war of 1948-49 was a “Nakba” (catastrophe) – the essence of the Palestinian narrative, and its ideology, Palestinianism.

As a result of the war, many Arabs fled to other countries, especially to Jordan, nearly a million became “refugees,” most of whom were cared for by UNRWA, and about 156, 000 who remained in Israel and became Israeli citizens. In addition, as a result of the war, Israel acquired abandoned Arab villages and property, and areas which had not been assigned to Israel in 1948, especially in the Galilee, the Negev, and western Jerusalem – which Israel declared as its capital -- with their Arab populations. Arabs still consider these areas as “disputed,” and they oppose any form of Israeli sovereignty.

As a result of the war in 1967, Israel acquired “the West Bank” – which the ICRC, the authority of the Fourth Geneva Convention (FGC) -- called “occupied Palestinian territory” (OPT). As Jews began build communities (“settlements”) there, the ICRC and others considered this a violation of the FGC, and therefore “illegal according to international law,” even though Jews lived there before 1948.

Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula and, in 1977, gave it to Egypt as part of a peace treaty; Jordan relinquished its claims in 1988 and signed a treaty with Israel in1995. That left Israel in control of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the Golan. Israeli sovereignty over the Golan was declared in 1981 and the area was incorporated into Israel. In 2020, the US recognized Israel’s claim to eastern Jerusalem and moved its embassy from Tel Aviv, followed by other countries.

In the Oslo Accords (1993), the PLO, a terrorist organization, was recognized as “the sole representative of the Palestinian people,” and the Palestinian Authority was given territory in Judea and Samaria. In2005, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and destroyed 4 Jewish communities in Samaria.

The big question is: to whom do these areas belong? Should they become part of Israel, or remain under military control as part of the “two-state-solution”(2SS) that many envision? With more than a half-million Israeli Jews living in Judea and Samaria, Israel cannot withdraw from the area. Should it annex them, and/or declare sovereignty over this area? This would be opposed by most of the international community. Moreover, it would mean incorporating more Palestinian Arabs into Israel. Understanding the difference between “annexation” and “sovereignty” may offer a path to a creative policy.

Annexation is a political, legal term used to describe incorporating territory by a country to which it has no valid claim. Using the term to describe Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria (" West Bank settlements") and Israeli claims/intentions is, therefore, problematic. The question is further confused because of Israel's vital security interests. In addition, many/most of the international community consider Israel sovereignty there as a form of annexation, and therefore, illegal.

A declaration of sovereignty by a country is the assertion that it is the rightful, legitimate possessor of the territory. Israeli sovereignty in areas it conquered applies to areas which historically belong to the Jewish people. That is the raison d'etre of the State of Israel and the basis for its claim of sovereignty. It is the essence of Zionism, the establishment of a Jewish country and society dedicated to national redemption and based on the principles and values of Judaism, ethical monotheism, the belief in One God.

Dr. Eliezer Berkowitz
Dr. Eliezer BerkowitzWith permission of Koren Publishers

Perhaps the most elegant and thoughtful expression of the meaning of Jewish sovereignty is Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits’ essay (in Essential Essays on Judaism, edited by David Hazony). Referring to the great 10th century sage, Saadia Gaon, Berkovits writes: “In his mind, it was the Tora that made Israel a people. Israel is a nation of Tora. A nation created in its encounter with God; a nation formed by its faith, by its submission to the will of God as made manifest in the Torah… Judaism is a nation-creating religion, and Israel is a people created by this kind of religion.”

“A key concept of Judaism is the idea of the covenant with God. In terms of the covenant, one might say that whereas in other religions the “covenant” is between the individual and his God, in Judaism the covenant with the individual derives from the larger covenant with the people. The covenant, he explains, is the basis for Jewish sovereignty because it enables a political entity to realize Torah ethics and ideals, “a place on earth in which the people are in command of their own destiny, where the comprehensive public deed of Judaism may be enacted.”

In his essay “Zion and Moral Vision” (in New Essays on Zionism), Hazony explains the importance of Berkovits’ insight: “First, that the Jewish collective identity is not merely a fact of history, but a prerequisite for the fulfillment of the Jewish moral vision; second, that the centrality of the collective translates into a demand for national sovereignty, not only today, but as a permanent requirement of Judaism; and finally, that the resultant understanding of Jewish history, the predicament of exile, and the problem of enlightenment makes the Jewish state a precondition for the success and survival of Judaism in the modern era.”

As a self-defined "Jewish state," Israeli sovereignty has a unique purpose and meaning; that is now threatened by Islamic terrorists, Muslim countries, and those who support “Palestinianism,” a virulent ideology rooted in Jew-hatred and dedicated to destroying Israel. That is what the war against Hamas and its supporters – and the upcoming-war against Hezbollah – is all about. It’s about Israel’s right to self-defense, its survival, and, therefore, Jewish sovereignty.

Moshe Dann is a PhD historian and journalist in Israel.