How changing West Bank name could advance peace

Beilin, Al Monitor, June 17, 2018

struggle between the Greeks and the Macedonians of the former Yugoslavia over
what the latter should call their state can serve to remind Israelis and
Palestinians that nomenclature — i.e., the West Bank versus Judea and Samaria —
does not determine borders or stop historical necessity.
Torokman. A Palestinian boy herds sheep in the Jordan Valley in the occupied
West Bank, March 13, 2018.

When the
State Department released its annual human rights report in April, it used
the term “West Bank
for the first time instead of “occupied territories.” Israeli Defense
Minister Avigdor Liberman immediately tweeted, “The lie that these territories
are occupied
is beginning to get exposed.” The Israeli political
right began rejoicing. While they would have preferred that the Americans
take their lead and use the biblical “Judea and Samaria” to
designate the land on the western bank of the Jordan River, they
considered it a step in the right direction. Meanwhile, an event in Europe
reminded that although issues of nomenclature can cause long and
exhausting diplomatic crises, they cannot stop historical necessity.

After 27
years of independence, Macedonia might finally be
recognized by an official name — the Republic of North
. For all these years, Greece had blocked the
country’s membership in major international organizations, including NATO
and the European Union, because Athens did not agree to it using its original
name, Macedonia, even though that is the name by which it is best known. The
Greeks claimed that the name was already taken by a strip of territory in the
northern part of their country.
over the new nation’s name repeatedly failed. There were even demonstrations in
Greece to prevent Macedonia from being used by the state formed in 1991
following the breakup of Yugoslavia. When the two countries finally appeared to
agree on a compromise, it was so obvious that they could have reached it
25 years ago.
I was in
Athens 25 years ago, following a visit to Israel by the Greek deputy foreign
minister. Before I left for Greece, I sat down for a final briefing with
the heads of the European desk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Only a few
days after that, Greece agreed to allow Macedonia to join the United Nations
under a temporary name — the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia — which
was envisioned as only being used for three months, until a
better solution could be found.
ministry desk officers advised me on various points that would come up in
conversations with Greek officials. Of note, they warned me about using the
name “Macedonia.” Instead, they said, refer to the country in question by
its English acronym, FYROM. During the flight to Greece, I kept reminding
myself to use FYROM, all the while hoping that I wouldn’t slip up. I
was not so lucky.
My first
meeting, with Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis, was extremely cordial and
businesslike. We covered all the issues on our agenda. Then, the issue of the
new state somehow came up, and I uttered the word “Macedonia.” The president
had a sudden change in mood, and genuine anger appeared on his face.
Before I could offer a heartfelt apology, he told me in the gravest of tones
that I must never call FYROM Macedonia.
there, I went directly to the residence of the opposition
leader, Andreas Papandreou, son of a former prime minister and father of
another. Old and ailing by then, Papandreou confided that within a few
months, he would be prime minister, which in fact he was. I knew him
well from annual conferences of the Socialist International, so I thought I
could talk to him, one friend to another, about the name Macedonia. When I told
him about my slip of the tongue with Mitsotakis, however, he couldn’t even
Papandreou then
explained that there was no possibility of making a concession to the insolent
Macedonians and that Greece would never agree to their adopting a
name not rightfully theirs. When I asked him to explain the exact
nature of the problem, he said that by calling the country Macedonia, they
were making revanchist claims to northern Greece, including the
all-important city of Thessaloniki. Papandreou then said that as prime
minister, he would refuse to call FYROM Macedonia, even if doing so resulted in
an international crisis.
remarked that FYROM was one of the smallest and poorest countries in Europe,
only Albania being poorer. Its military posed no threat to Greece, nor
would it in the foreseeable future. Given this, even if people knew that
the name also refers to a swathe of Greek territory, the new
nation wanting to be called Macedonia would not end with the
Macedonian occupation of the northern part of his country.
became so pale, it was heartbreaking. He turned to me and his young wife,
who was seated beside him, and said, “Yossi is right. FYROM does
not pose a threat to Greece. But if the country is called Macedonia, the day
will come in 50 years, or maybe 100 years, or even 150 years, when it has a
stronger army than it has now. Then, it will tell the world, ‘There’s a reason
we are called Macedonia. You all recognized the name and were well-aware that
Macedonia does not just refer to a tiny country north of Greece, but to an
entire territory, which includes half of Greece itself! We are fighting for our
I did not
tell Papandreou that at that time Israel was in the midst of intense
negotiations with the PLO in
, or that in those talks the Palestinians and the Israelis
were both cautioned to avoid falling into verbal traps. I did, however, tell
him that when Menachem Begin became prime minister, in 1977, he had
made a point of referring to the PLO as the PMO, short
for Palestinian Murderers Organization. He believed that by calling the
organization by its actual name, he would be admitting that there is a
Palestine and that it needed to be liberated.
I also
told him that Begin was willing to have the 1978 Camp David Accords state
in English that Israel recognizes the legitimate rights of the “Palestinians”
so long as the Hebrew version of the agreement called them “the Arab
population of the Land of Israel.” US President Jimmy Carter told him that
he could write whatever he wanted in Hebrew, because the English text would
be the authoritative version of the agreement.
I also
told Papandreou that we referred to Sharm el-Sheikh as Ophira to underscore its
Hebrew identity and that we eventually returned Ophira to Egypt along with
the town of Yamit, in the northern Sinai Peninsula, and all the other Jewish
settlements established on that beautiful peninsula. I commented on how
Israelis are split between those who refer to the western bank of the Jordan
River as the West Bank and those (right-wingers) who refer to the area as Judea and
 to emphasize that it is an integral part of the Land of
Israel as claimed by the Jews and that a nation cannot forgo its roots.
Nevertheless, it is not such nomenclature that will determine the
border between Israel and some future Palestinian state.
without warning, Papandreou smiled for the first and only time during our
strange conversation. He had previously heard about the issue of Judea and
Samaria, but now he had a suggestion. “Maybe you can make this compromise,” he
said. “The Palestinians will agree to call the West Bank Judea and
Samaria, and you transfer the territory to them, along with the Gaza
Strip, so that they can establish their own state there.”