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It is interesting to consider why Ariel Sharon decided on sheep of all the forms of livestock he might have chosen to raise. The reports that he has requested from Talia Sasson (on the outposts) and Baruch Spiegel (on the settlements) show he's second to none in raising goats. He sends the settlers, with one eye winking and the other closed, to take over more and more land and then, if there is no choice, he will dismantle a handful of "unauthorized outposts." Everyone will laud his courage, while dozens of "authorized outposts" continue to flourish. With enormous generosity of spirit, Sharon wants Spiegel to find out whether the veteran settlements were created according to law and to the rules set down by Israel's governments. But what about such petty things as the legal and moral status of the settlements according to the acceptable norms of universal justice and morality and international law.

Over the years, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and applied its law and administration to the Golan Heights. The inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza had to make do with a semantic change in their status, being called "the Arabs of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District." In the absence of Israeli law and regulations, Israel established "legal" settlements in "Judea and Samaria" on "state lands" (in addition to assistance, both in deed and in misdeed, to the outright theft of private land), on the basis of Ottoman law. According to that Turkish-era law, if land is not held by anyone and one's voice when speaking on that land cannot be heard by a person in the nearest community, that land became known as mawat, dead, and available to anyone's use - as long as the ownership remained in the hands of the sultan.

The sultan - meaning the governments of Israel - behaves in the territories like the owner, according to Ottoman law, and asks to be judged by enlightened international law. But even according to the sultan's law, and this is an understatement, the status of the settlements - all the settlements, from Ariel to Ma'aleh Adumim - is most problematic. Supreme Court President Justice Aharon Barak has determined that the Hague Rules (the treaty regarding the laws and customs of ground war and its accompanying rules, from 1970) allow the military commander, as the arm of the sultan, to take action "according to the security interests in the area or according to the interests of the local population" (High Court 393/82). It is very difficult to find an Israel Defense Forces officer who would claim the settlements contribute to the State of Israel's "security interests," and as far as their contribution to the "interests of the local population," the less said the better.

To circumvent the prohibition about moving civilian populations into occupied territory, Israel claims that the settlements are not "a permanent change." In 1979, Supreme Court Justice Miriam Ben-Porat accepted that argument, in a case over the expropriation of private Palestinian property for the purpose of establishing the settlement of Beit El. Twenty-six years have since passed. If all goes well when Israel evacuates the settlements of Gaza and the northern West Bank, the proportion between the period it was an occupier, or more precisely, a "holder" of those territories (for the legal term used in Israel is "holder of the territories") and the time we existed without them, will be 2:1. That means we have been living with the occupation - sorry, the "holding" of the territories - twice as long as we did without them.

Ever since Sharon returned from the White House last April with a letter full of promises from President George W. Bush, the prevailing view has been that the problem of the settlements has finally reached its resolution. The U.S. will allow the "settlement blocs" to remain. However, that American recognition of the "new realities on the ground" was accompanied by the important words that "any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed upon changes that reflect these realities."

When Israel asks the Palestinians to agree to those changes, they will be presenting it with a clear choice: immediate annexation of the settlement blocs with all the settlers, in exchange for suitable compensation, meaning a 1:1 territorial change, or annexation in the not-so-distant future of all the territories, with all "the Arabs of Judea and Samaria" included. Experts on the right argue that the demographic problem is overblown. Okay, then let them annex it all.