While Israeli Settlers Celebrate Levy Report, Netanyahu Will Have to Deal With Semantics of Occupation

Report represents major accomplishment of settler community within the Likud; message coming from top is report will inspire certain changes, but won't be fully adopted.

The settler community and its backers celebrated Monday what many called “a holiday for settlement” in response to the publication of the Levy Committee report, which came down strongly in support of the Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria.

The report represents a major accomplishment of the settler community within the Likud party: Thousands of registered Likud members put pressure on Likud ministers, who in turn pressured the prime minister to establish the committee.

The panel’s members were meticulously chosen: Former Supreme Court Vice President Justice Edmund Levy had opposed the 2005 disengagement, former Tel Aviv District Court Judge Tchia Shapira is a sister-in-law of right-wing ideologue Israel Harel, and Alan Baker’s professional positions are widely supported by the right.

And indeed, the Levy Committee strayed from its original mandate, which was to examine issues relating to state lands, and dealt with outposts that are on private land as well as whether the Israeli presence in the West Bank was an “occupation” or not.

Practically speaking, there was no legal position presented by the settlers that wasn’t totally accepted. The panel essentially embraced the settlers’ “winking doctrine”: Any promise made to them by ministers, even when those assurances contradicted the ministers’ own decisions in the cabinet, were turned by the panel into faits accomplis. Levy determined that government attempts to deny responsibility for the actions of its ministers and officials was not true shirking, but was meant to rebuff international pressure. In other words, proper administration is the art of fudging and lies, instead of the opposite.

But the greater the settlers’ victory, the less likely it is that anything will come of the report. All the ministers affiliated with the right have been demanding that the report be brought for approval to the Ministerial Committee on Settlement. But in the two weeks since the report landed on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s desk, his people have been trying to reduce expectations, with the excuse that “Netanyahu is still studying the report.”

The primary problem facing Netanyahu is to be found in the semantic debate over the concept of occupation. Netanyahu can’t, nor does he want to, put forward a government resolution that Israel is not an occupier of the territories. Such a resolution would have far-reaching diplomatic consequences, while even those on the right know it would not have any practical effect.

On the other hand, if he breaks the report into sections and brings only certain ones to the cabinet for ratification, Netanyahu will be perceived by the right as accepting that Israel is an occupying force. The main message coming from the top is that the report will “inspire” certain changes, but will not be adopted in its entirety.

The committee wanted to lay alternative infrastructure for all that has been happening in the West Bank until now. The panel, in essence, started from zero and ignored a long line of Supreme Court rulings, laws, regulations and diplomatic agreements that Israel has signed, such as the Oslo Accords.

Among other recommendations, Levy essentially overturns the High Court of Justice decision on Alon Moreh, which called for a disconnect between seizing land for military purposes and using it for settlement purposes. Levy states that such lands can be used for settlements, subject to a professional security opinion on the needs of the adjacent community.

Another recommendation that contradicts the high court relates to the “bothersome use order,” which allows the head of the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria to remove settlers who have trespassed on private lands, even if there is no complaint. The Levy panel called this order “draconian.”

By contrast, only three months ago former Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch wrote that the order, “Realizes the obligation of the military commander to maintain public order this order enables him to fulfill these obligations and gives him practical tools for implementing them.”

In his recommendation regarding Israel’s role as an occupier, Levy repeated what he had written in a High Court of Justice petition filed against the 2005 Gaza disengagement operation, but forgot to note that his position had been rejected by his judicial colleagues by an overwhelming majority of 10 to 1.

Achievements aside, lack of time and the urgent need to present its recommendations meant the committee did not address two issues the settlers consider crucial, although it wasn’t clear why, after 45 years of military rule over disputed territories, the report couldn’t have waited two more months.

The first issue relates to Jewish-owned lands that in 1948 had been transferred to the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property. This issue is critical for the Jewish community of Hebron, which for years has been demanding the right to build in the entire area of the market, which had been Jewish owned.

The second issue is lands belonging to absentee owners. In 1967, many Palestinians fled their homes. Israel recognizes their rights to the lands they owned, but is prepared to make temporary use of them. The settlers argue that they can build homes on these lands, but the Levy panel made no decision.

The committee did not, of course, deal with Palestinian problems in the West Bank. It did not, for example, address the tendency of the Israel Defense Forces to falsely declare certain areas as firing zones in order to expel Bedouin, or proposals to regularize the massive illegal building by Palestinians in Area C, which is under complete Israeli control.  

The only recommendation made that favors the Palestinians is that judges in instances dealing with land claims should wear civilian clothes rather than uniforms, “which is liable to contribute to the image of the panel in the eyes of the population.”

Amos Ben-Gershom