As I wrote last week, the release of a report establishing the legality of Israel’s presence in the West Bank issued by a panel of Israeli experts chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Edmund Levy has been widely condemned. The attacks on Levy’s report have come from both those who support the Palestinians as well as Israelis and friends of Israel who oppose the settlement movement. Among the most prominent examples of the latter came in a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu organized by the Israel Policy Forum, a liberal group that came into existence to support the Oslo peace process and which has been eclipsed in recent years by the failure of the polices they promoted. The IPF letter takes the position that, if adopted by the government, the Levy report dooms the two-state solution to the conflict and “will strengthen those who seek to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist.”
While the concerns expressed in this letter are real, those who signed are mistaken not only about the impact of Levy’s report but also about how to build international support for Israel and the hope of peace. What the signers don’t understand is that it is the opposite tack — Israel’s abandonment of a position that would uphold its rights — that has done the most to convince the world the Jewish state is in the wrong and strengthened the resolve of the Palestinians to never accede to a compromise on territory and two states. While one document cannot undo the damage done by Oslo and 19 years of failed peace processing, the Levy report can at least begin to remind the world the Israeli-Arab conflict is not one of balancing Palestinian rights and Israeli security but the rights of two nations.
One of the letter’s most prominent signers, Shalem Center senior vice president (and COMMENTARY contributor) Rabbi Daniel Gordis, conceded in his op-ed published yesterday in Ha’aretz in which he explained his participation in the IPF letter, that its purpose was not to dispute Levy’s legal position. Indeed, it would have difficulty doing so from a Zionist frame of reference, as the rights of Jews to live and build in the West Bank was enshrined in the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine which is the last internationally recognized sovereign in the area. Levy’s point is not that the West Bank only belongs to Israel, but that it is disputed territory to which both the Jewish state and the Palestinians may assert a claim. Those claims can only be resolved by negotiations that could end the conflict with a territorial compromise.
But Gordis and his colleagues believe the mere assertion of Jewish rights in the West Bank, even if it is accompanied as it has been by an offer to negotiate peace and territorial compromise, will never be understood by the world. They believe it will signal Israel’s unwillingness to ever make peace and doom the Jewish state not just to unending conflict but also to the problems that will arise from the presence of a large Arab population under its control. These worries are not without basis. Israel is assailed by the world for its perceived unwillingness to make peace, even though the history of the post-Oslo era has shown that the land for peace formula it embraced brought it neither peace nor security.
But what Gordis and the other 40 signers of the IPF letter miss is that by consciously downplaying its legal rights in the dispute, Israel has unwittingly strengthened the hand of those who oppose its existence, be it inside or outside the green line. By ceasing to speak of the justice of Israel’s case, the so-called “peace camp” played into the hands of those who think Jews have no more right to live in Tel Aviv than in Jerusalem or the most remote hilltop West Bank settlement.
Far from encouraging the Palestinians to abandon their dreams of a “right of return” and the eradication of Zionism, the more Israel and its friends treat the West Bank and even Jerusalem as stolen territory, the less likely it is that the Palestinians will ever accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders will be drawn.
Indeed, if the Levy report has any impact on the Palestinians, it is a reminder to them that their hopes of achieving the eviction of every Jew from the West Bank as well as from the portions of Jerusalem that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 are dead. If they wish to have a Palestinian state in the West Bank — something they were offered by Israel but refused in 2000, 2001 and 2008 — they must return to negotiations instead of sitting back and waiting for the Obama administration or the Europeans to pressure Israel into a unilateral withdrawal such as the disastrous 2005 retreat from Gaza.
Even the Obama administration has conceded that Israel will retain many of the settlements in a theoretical peace deal that will include territorial swaps. How can Israel hope to bargain for such an outcome if it is unwilling to state that Jews have every right to live in these towns and villages as well as in Jerusalem?
The assertion of Jewish rights is not incompatible with peace talks or even the surrender of much of the West Bank as part of a genuine peace accord. It is hard to imagine such talks succeeding under any circumstances in the absence of a sea change in the political culture of the Palestinians that would enable them to live with a Jewish state. But they have no hope of succeeding so long as the Palestinians think Israel can be made to give up all of the land without peace. Nor will the international community ever support an Israel they believe has “stolen” Palestinian land.
A generation of abdication of Jewish rights to the West Bank has not softened the hearts of the world or the Palestinians. If Israel is ever to negotiate a peace that will bring security, it must start by saying that it comes to the table not as a thief but as a party whose legal rights must be respected.