The visit of President Obama to Israel, Palestine and Jordan has focused media attention again on the political, economic and demographic challenges of the people and governments of the "Middle East," that petroleum-rich part of the world centered on the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Our government is subjected to criticism, alternatively and repeatedly, for not paying enough attention to those challenges (staying out of the civil war raging in Syria), or for interfering too much in the internal affairs of other nation-states (invading Iraq 10 years ago). In order to begin to understand the challenges, it is necessary to study the political and economic history of the region, and to view the problems from the various and competing perspectives of the people directly affected.

One may look back hundreds or even thousands of years for the sources of the problems. However, my own study and personal observations have led me to believe that there are at least three major myths affecting the small area known as Israel or Palestine, which have arisen in the last 140 years, and which form the basis, or excuse, for the behavior of individuals and governments which their rivals or enemies, and occasionally even their friends, find reprehensible. These three myths, in chronological sequence, and not necessarily in order of importance, are (1) the Zionist myth of "people without land for a land without people (Palestine)," (2) the Arab myth that the Jews stole the land on which to create the state of Israel, and (3) the American myth that the government of Israel can do no wrong.

Beginning in the 1880s, the Zionists promoted the migration to Palestine of landless and powerless eastern European Jews out of the villages and ghettoes where they were persecuted, especially at the hands of the Russian Empire and the Hapsburg empire of Austria-Hungary. Palestine was regarded as an ancestral land for religious Jews, whose reverence for Jerusalem has survived centuries of dispersal throughout the world.

The Zionist slogans conveniently ignored the fact that the land was not without people, but home to thousands of Arab farmers whose olive groves and arid pastures yielded only a meager subsistence. Palestine had been governed loosely from Istanbul for four centuries before World War I by the Ottoman Empire. The Arab farmers who bothered to register their deeds received both a tax bill and a summons for their sons to serve in the Ottoman armies engaged in the incessant disputes and uprisings which led to the dissolution of the empire in 1922. For the most part, the land remained registered to wealthy absentee Arab and Turkish landlords under the Ottoman land registry system. It is especially significant that the Ottoman Empire never industrialized, but bought its capital goods from European factories. There was no middle class of industrial workers striving to improve their living standards in Palestine, as there was in Europe and North America. There were only the rich and the poor.

Both before and after World War I, Jewish religious charities, Zionist development organizations, and individual Jews worked tirelessly to purchase and improve land in Palestine. Their efforts were aided by the Balfour Declaration of the British Cabinet, in November 1917, favoring officially "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people," while providing also that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,…" Some Arabs were suspicious that the promises by some British officials (such as Lawrence of Arabia) of the establishment of an Arab state out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire would not materialize, and their suspicions were heightened when the treaties which ended World War I divided Ottoman outposts between France and Great Britain. The British may have had more geological information, because they were left in charge of what is now Iraq, and the territories of Trans-Jordan and Palestine through which to build pipelines for Iraqi petroleum to be transported to Mediterranean ports for shipment to Europe. The French were left in charge of Lebanon and Syria, and the Kurds, who may have been promised their own independence, saw their ancestral homeland carved up into parts of Turkey, Iraq and Syria. To their credit, the British mandatory administrations in Trans-Jordan and Palestine, authorized by the League of Nations, tried to discourage the burgeoning volume of land transfers from Arabs to Jews, even closing the land registry offices in Palestine for more than a year around 1921. They proved powerless to stop the land sale boom, and the transfers proceeded almost unabated until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, at ever-inflating land prices. One American scholar has estimated that more than 65 percent of the best land included in the original tiny state of Israel was purchased perfectly legitimately between the world wars.

The British mandatory administration made no effort to impose British land law on Palestine, but left in place the Ottoman land tenure system, which significantly does not recognize adverse possession ("squatters' rights") in the vast majority of land classifications. Thus thousands of Arab farmers (whose descendants now are called "Palestinians") were displaced by the sale of their tenancies out from under them by their wealthy city cousins. The proportion of Jews in the population of Palestine in 1946 had risen to 32 percent, from less than 5 percent before the Zionist migration.

Jewish immigration to Palestine grew, both during Nazi persecution before World War II, and after the liberation by Allied soldiers of the small numbers of Jews who survived the Holocaust. After the war, the newly-formed United Nations was persuaded of the wisdom of partitioning Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, the latter to be the homeland of both Christian and Muslim Arabs. Although the Arabs never agreed to the plan, the British decided to end their mandatory administration by withdrawing from Palestine on May 15, 1948. Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion declared the independence of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948, and the Arab armies attacked the following morning, displacing even more Arab citizens. President Harry Truman almost immediately recognized the existence of Israel, making the United States the first friend of the new nation. Curiously, the Soviet leader Stalin allowed the Skoda munitions factories in Czechoslovakia to supply armaments to the Israeli Defense Force, without which the independence of Israel might have been brief. In nearly 65 years of independence, the Israeli government has defended and prosecuted many military and police aggressions, and the land area of Israel has grown and shrunk with the fortunes of war. The United States invariably has taken the side of Israel in all international negotiations and discussions, even when the United Nations has criticized Israel for being too aggressive itself, and for building new residential communities for Israeli Jews in the occupied Palestinian territory known as the West Bank. When General Ariel Sharon was prime minister of Israel, he sent I.D.F. soldiers to help remove Israeli settlers involuntarily from the Palestinian territory known as the Gaza Strip. Mr. Sharon recognized the difficulty of protecting and defending a community of Jews inside the very dense Arab population of Gaza. President Obama's speech in Jerusalem on Thursday,

March 21 may have been the first instance of Israeli citizens applauding an American public official who dared to suggest an even-handed approach to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The settlements are possible legalistically because neither the state of Israel nor the Palestinian Authority has seen fit, just like the British, to change Ottoman land law. The Jewish National Fund still is in the business of tracking down the descendants and heirs of registered landowners, wherever they might live, and purchasing the land of people who have been dead for three or four generations. Squatters' rights still do not exist in Israel or Palestine. Because Palestine still is not a sovereign nation, whose territory is recognized by other nations, it might not be able to change its governing land law, even if its people wanted the change. The United States government still is in the business of subsidizing Israel's military expenses, notably the "Iron Dome" missile defense system recently inspected by President Obama.

How will the community of nations deal with these issues in a manner that is sensible and fair? What should the United Nations be expected to do? Should the United States provide the leadership to impose solutions to the problems, and at what cost to our taxpayers? Should the three religions which call the land holy be expected to exercise leadership among their people, to tolerate the others in peace? Will the lives of soldiers, policemen and civilians continue to be spent on the conflicts generated by these issues? Will vast fortunes continue to be spent on armament, when the money would be better spent on health, education and economic development? To paraphrase former President Bill Clinton, when will enough old men decide that enough young men have died? Whatever has become of the "two-state solution?"

Local resident Frank Innes is a retired lawyer interested in land tenure systems worldwide. He holds an undergraduate degree in history from the University of Virginia (1967), is a member of the Towanda Rotary Club and was the leader of a five-man Rotary Group Study Exchange team for five weeks in Israel in 1980.