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.
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.