The Levy Committee last week issued a report asserting that the Israeli settlements are legal according to international law and recommending the formal legalization of the unauthorized outposts, including those built on privately owned Palestinian land. This is a milestone because it is the first time such a claim has been made by an official body, appointed by an Israeli prime minister.
The committee went significantly further than the Israeli Supreme Court, which has consistently distinguished between private land either owned by Jews prior to the 1967 War or purchased by Jews in private transactions after the 1967 War; private land belonging to local Palestinian residents that was requisitioned by military order for security needs and handed over to the settlers; and land that was declared by a military order to be “state land.”
The problem, however, is not a judicial one. The three members of the committee, headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Edmund Levy, say they are not expressing an opinion as to whether it is politically prudent to continue with settlement activity, and rightly so. In fact, analyzing the legal angle will only make things more difficult for Israel, as its opponents will cite rulings made by international bodies such as the International Court of Justice in The Hague, leading to the further isolation of Israel.
The relevant discussion belongs in the national and political domains. And these domains, cannot reconcile Zionism with ruling some 2.5 million Palestinians, lacking full and equal citizenship rights, over the course of many decades. Continued settlement activity makes the two-state solution impossible, and any report saying it is legal simply distances Israel even farther from the Zionist vision.
Past pullouts had nothing to do with legal considerations. Israel chose to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula in the early 1980s and the Gaza Strip in 2005 not because it had suddenly acknowledged the legal problems associated with the settlements there, but because such a move served its best long-term national interests. And even though the Gaza disengagement was very poorly handled both in the way Israel departed from these areas and in the way it relocated the uprooted settlers, nobody in the Israeli mainstream thinks it would be wise for Israel to go back there and reestablish the settlements. This proves that other considerations dictate Israeli actions.
Nobody but its own people and government will save Israel from going down a suicidal path. Rather than opening up a futile discussion over the legality of the settlements, Israel should take steps that promote returning to negotiations while at the same time advancing a reality of two states. Israel should declare that it is ready at any moment to resume negotiations for achieving a two-state solution, that it has no sovereignty claims over areas east of the separation fence and that it will negotiate over areas between the 1967 borders and the fence in order to be able to meet its security and demographic objectives under a permanent two-state agreement.
Further, Israel should take constructive unilateral steps, stopping all settlement activity east of the fence and starting to plan for the relocation of about 100,000 settlers who currently live there, so as to not to repeat the failed implementation of the settlers’ return from the Gaza Strip. It should also enact a voluntary evacuation law that would allow the settlers who so choose to resettle within Israel. Such a law will also allow for the compensation of settlers evacuating settlements built on private Palestinian land, such as Migron and Givat Ulpana in Beit El.
Israel should not withdraw the Israel Defense Forces from the areas east of the fence before an agreement is reached or until a robust international presence replaces it and takes security responsibility. Thus, through a series of constructive unilateral actions, gradual but tangible changes could begin to transform the situation and create a reality of two states.
The Levy report pushes the envelope of legal argumentation and negates the illegality of settlements in a pointless exercise. It would allow Israel to dig itself into an even deeper hole in the sand, like the proverbial ostrich, and avoid the reality that the country cannot remain a Jewish democracy without disengaging from 2.5 million Palestinians. Endorsing this report would achieve precisely the opposite, and the hole in the sand could well become the grave of the Zionist enterprise.
Ami Ayalon is a former commander of the Israeli Navy and head of the Israeli domestic security agency. Orni Petruschka is a high-tech entrepreneur and social investor. Gilead Sher was a peace negotiator and chief of staff to the Israeli prime minister from 1999 to 2001. The writers jointly founded Blue White Future http://bluewhitefuture.org/ as an Israeli non-partisan political movement focusing on the relocation of certain settlers to enable Israelis and Palestinians to reach a two-state solution.
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