Bibi’s choice

A new report declares West Bank settlements legal, but Israel can hardly afford to further alienate Washington
Jamie Dettmer
Jewish settlers take part in a general drill to protect their unauthorized outpost of Havat Gilad, south of the West Bank city of Nablus September 19, 2011. General drills take place on a regular basis in Jewish settlements and outposts throughout the West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday that he would push ahead with plans to seek full U.N. membership for a Palestinian state, a move the United States and Israel say could lead to disaster. REUTERS/Nir Elias (WEST BANK - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) FOR BEST QUALITY IMAGE: ALSO SEE GF2E7BG1O7I01
Bibi’s choice
Nir Elias/Reuters

For Barack Obama’s administration, the report could not have landed at a more awkward moment, just as Washington is tightening sanctions on nuclear wannabe Iran and trying to press others to toughen up on Tehran. But then even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who initiated the study and appointed the three-person committee, seemed to take the equivalent of a political gulp by delaying, by two weeks, the release of the report recommending he legalize Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The Levy committee report, recently released, presents Netanyahu with opportunity but also danger. He launched the committee, headed by former Israeli Supreme Court judge Edmond Levy, in January as a way to appease Israeli settlers in the Palestinian territories; they have long chafed at a 2005 report by the country’s state prosecutor at the time, which argued that illegal settlements in the West Bank should be dismantled. Some have indeed been, to the anger of settlers.

Now the Levy committee has concluded, in contradiction of a handful of international legal rulings, and some Israeli ones too, that Israel’s presence in the West Bank is not an occupation, and recommended the state approve scores of new Israeli settlements in the region, which was taken from Jordan in the Six Day War.

Aside from anything else, that finding poses a major legal problem for Israel, which has signed treaties acknowledging that the West Bank is occupied territory. (Even the country’s Supreme Court has accepted that Israel’s authority in the territories is based on the international law of “belligerent occupation.”) If the West Bank—Levy supporters call it Judea and Samaria—becomes a part of Israel, its 2.4 million Palestinian citizens would presumably have to be given the rights of Israelis. Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, warned darkly last week of a “threatening demographic change” as a result of continued Israeli settlements in the territories.

Overseas, criticism has come fast and furious, with the Obama administration stating bluntly that it doesn’t accept “the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity.” European governments have received legal opinions arguing that they have the legal right to boycott settlement goods. Even American Jewish leaders have criticized the report.

A fight with some of its closest allies is the last thing Israel needs, given recent changes in the region, starting with last month’s election of an Islamist president next door who wishes to “reconsider” Egypt’s peace treaty with the country. With Islamists in control in Tunisia and almost certainly part of a future coalition government in Libya following elections there, the Israeli government—and Washington for that matter—have every reason to avoid providing a cause célèbre that could prompt uproar across the Middle East. The mercury is already climbing rapidly in the occupied territories over allegations that Yasser Arafat, the veteran Palestinian leader, died of radioactive polonium poisoning, with fingers being pointed at Israeli intelligence.

Israel, meanwhile, is already knee-deep in another blistering national debate: whether Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 per cent of Israel’s population, should continue to be exempted from military service. The army doesn’t want to have to cope with Arab draftees and Arabs don’t want to join the army to fight fellow Arabs and Muslims. Netanyahu was drawn into the political fight by a Supreme Court ruling that found the law exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews who were in religious studies unconstitutional. Now the government is proposing both the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs serve in the military.

Given this toxic mix of regional and domestic politics, Netanyahu, who blocked a settlement legalization bill in June, may now be regretting his decision to appoint the Levy committee in the first place. If he doesn’t want to incur the full wrath of the Israeli right by shelving the recommendations, a likely scapegoat is at hand: his attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, who was furious at the appointment of the committee. Netanyahu has asked Weinstein for a legal opinion. It is unlikely to be favourable. Whether Netenyahu can leverage that opinion into a graceful exit remains to be seen.