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Settlements are legal, but who cares?

by Shmuel Rosner

July 9, 2012 | 5:22 am

The West Bank settlement of Givat Ze'ev, near Jerusalem (Photo: Reuters)

A judiciary committee has concluded that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are in ‎fact legal. The West Bank, the committee believes, is not occupied territory and ‎therefore Israel has the legal right to settle it. Is it a legally viable conclusion? ‎One would find it hard to dismiss such a conclusion, authored by a former High ‎Court justice, and the former legal advisor to Israel’s Foreign Ministry. ‎

Alan Baker, one of the committee members, said today that the report produced ‎by the committee is “legal” and not “political”. I have no doubt that the authors ‎believe this to be the case – and I have no doubt that such belief is irrelevant. As ‎soon as the report was released and published, a barrage of responses followed ‎the most banal route of political patterns. Ministers of the right immediately leapt ‎on the opportunity to legalize all West Bank outposts, calling the report an ‎historic opportunity. Left-wing NGOs attacked the report without even taking the ‎time to pretend to have read it first. ‎

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Law is not mathematics – it is an interpretive discipline, and debates over legal ‎matters are to be expected. The Levy Committee report is much too serious to be ‎caricatured. It is not a kooky report authored by zealots. It highlights many ‎important points that many people aren’t even aware of: There was never a ‎Palestinian State in the occupied territories; Jordan was also an occupier and ‎had no stronger claim on the West Bank than Israel. These are not exactly new ‎revelations – but the Levy committee made them seem new by highlighting them ‎and making them the focal point in its ruling on the legality of settlements. ‎

Does it matter? I’d suspect it doesn’t matter much. The issue of settlements is not ‎a legal matter, it’s a political matter. That the Prime Minister didn’t rush to ‎publicize the report is quite telling. Apparently, he didn’t think this would be the ‎trump card with which to sway the world away from hammering Israel over its ‎settlement policy; apparently, he did realize that such report is trouble – he will ‎now have to rein in the many settler-friendly legislators in his party who for some ‎reason believe this report will give them a mandate to build in the territories as ‎much as they want; apparently, he knows very well that this report means a ‎waste of many good hours on useless conversations with “worried” European ‎officials. ‎

Don’t believe the many critics of the Levy report: it is a fine report, and in many ‎ways a convincing report. To have a real impact though, it should have been ‎produced 40 years ago, when Israel didn’t yet have West Bank policies well in ‎place, before the many rulings of the High Court on this matter, before the minds ‎of right and left Israelis were set, before the talks with Palestinians took place, ‎before the nineties and the eighties and the seventies, before the “occupation” ‎transcended all legal discussion. Maybe 40 years ago, the Levy report could ‎have a real impact – and not even then it would necessarily have had a positive ‎impact. ‎

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