Netanyahu knew report on legalizing West Bank outposts would be a diplomatic bombshell
PM's office has kept the report quiet for two and a half weeks, knowing that it would cause political turmoil; the government response could be volatile.
For two and a half weeks the report on the outposts compiled by the panel headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy has been sitting on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s desk. When the panel members submitted the report to Netanyahu on June 21, it was done secretly, away from the media’s prying eyes. The Prime Minister’s Office didn’t even issue a short laconic statement to the press.
Reporters who called the prime minister’s bureau asking if the report had been submitted got dry, evasive answers. Even after some of the details were leaked to the Israel Hayom newspaper Netanyahu’s office refused to confirm them.
Only this morning, a day after the report was distributed to some of the government ministers and from there to the media, did Netanyahu’s office suddenly remember that the presentation of the report had been photographed by the Government Press Office. Thus, after a two-and-half week delay, the stills and video of the historic moment were sent out.
Netanyahu and his advisers knew very well why they were keeping a low profile on the report. In retrospect, it isn’t certain that Netanyahu would even have appointed the committee, which was convened under pressure from the Likud ministers who wanted something to offer the more right-wing camp of Moshe Feiglin, which represents a significant proportion of the party’s central committee.
When the prime minister’s people read the report they understood that this was explosive material – politically, and even more so, diplomatically. If the report was allowed to dissolve, Netanyahu knew he would have an intifada on his hands – from the settlers and the right-wing ministers in his government. If the report would be adopted and implemented, Netanyahu would be confronted with international condemnation so sharp that its ramifications would be hard to foresee.
Netanyahu’s first public response to the report was general and noncommittal, clear evidence of the degree to which he would be pleased if the report by Justice Edmond Levy would just disappear – like the two most recent reports of former State Comptroller Micha Lindestrauss, which got about 36 hours of newspaper headlines and radio interviews, and that was it.
“I appreciate the quiet work of the committee,” said Netanyahu. “I will bring the report by the Edmond Levy Committee to be debated by the Ministerial Committee for Settlement Affairs on the West Bank and we will decide about it in that forum.”
The part of the report that particularly worries Netanyahu is the determination by the committee that the West Bank is not occupied territory and thus the Fourth Geneva Convention and relevant United Nations resolutions do not apply. The significance of this, according to the committee, is that “under international law the establishment of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria is not illegal.”
This determination was influenced by, among other documents, the position taken by the right-wing Regavim Association and the Binyamin Regional Council, which was represented by reserve colonel and attorney Daniel Reisner. Reisner had in the past served as head of the international law department in the Military Prosecution. Ironically, over the past three years he had been an adviser on Palestinian affairs to Netanyahu’s special envoy for talks with the Palestinians, attorney Isaac Molho.
To justify the claim that the West Bank is not occupied territory and the settlements are legal, Levy, Judge Tchia Shapira, and international law expert Alan Baker went all the way back to November 2, 1917, the date the Balfour Declaration was issued.
Although the Balfour Declaration was a general statement and has no legal validity, the committee determined that in its declaration it had designated Judea and Samaria to be part of the Jewish national home. The committee stated that Jews hadn’t settled there between 1948 and 1967 “only because of the urgency of war,” and after the Six Day War the Jews “returned” to the territory that had been promised them. For this reason, the committee stressed, Israel has a right to demand sovereignty over the area.
During Netanyahu's first term, the Foreign Ministry produced hasbara documents proclaiming the legality of the settlements. Nowhere around the world did anyone buy it from the embarrassed Israeli diplomats that tried to sell. Today, if an Israeli diplomat were to bring such a document to a foreign ministry anywhere in the world, they'd be quite thrown out in disgrace.
In a rare coincidence, the British newspaper, "The Independent," published an opinion piece by James Crawford, professor of international law at Cambridge University, proclaiming a government boycott of the settlements is not against European Trade laws. The opinion piece reached the British Foreign Ministry, as well as the foreign ministry of other member nations of the European Union, where frustration over Israel's presence in the West Bank continues to rise.
Netanyahu knows that the settlements are Israel's weak point facing the international community. No other nation in the world takes Israel's side on the issue. A government decision to adopt Edmond Levy's report would serve to distance Israel from its last remaining friends, increase Israel's isolation from the rest of the world, give credibility to the Palestinian campaign for unilateral recognition by the UN, and most severe - it would bring the calls to boycott products from the settlements from the sidelines to center stage.
One last point. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who spoke on Sunday to the Foreign and Defense Committee, pointed out that though the situation in the West Bank is quiet, it could easily erupt. "Israel has what to risk, and the current quiet should not be taken for granted," said Barak.
"It can lead to an outburst, in which case the political standstill won't be good for us," continued Barak. Even if Netanyahu chooses to represses this, from Barak's comments, adoption of Levy's report could bring about an extreme situation, even the incitement of a new Palestinian intifada.
The blog of Haaretz's diplomatic correspondent, taking a deeper look behind the scenes of Israeli politics and foreign policy.