The release of a report on the legality of Israel’s presence in the West Bank commissioned by Prime Minister Netanyahu is being widely dismissed by critics of his government as well as those of the Jewish state. Though its findings that Jews have the right to live in the territories and that Israel’s presence there does not fit the traditional definition of a military occupation are solidly based in international law, no one should expect the left to respect the report issued by a panel headed by former Supreme Court Vice President Edmond Levy. Nor should we be surprised if the international community ignores it. Opposition to the settlements is so deeply entrenched that there is no argument, no matter how grounded in logic or justice, that would persuade those committed to the myth settlements are the only obstacle to peace, that they are not illegal. As legal scholar David M. Phillips wrote in the September 2009 issue of COMMENTARY, international law supports this position.
But while we expect this effort to be trashed, those horrified by the fact that Israel is willing to assert that it has rights in the West Bank that are as worthy of respect as those of the Arabs are not just wrong about the legal arguments. Their assumption that a belief in the settlements’ legality makes a peace deal impossible is equally mistaken. Just because Israel has rights in the West Bank doesn’t mean it need necessarily exercise them on every inch of the territory. The assertion of Jewish rights merely means Israel has a leg to stand on when negotiating the permanent status of the West Bank and Jerusalem. Far from that rendering peace unlikely, it ought to give Palestinians an incentive to come to the table and work out a deal that will give them as much of the territory as they can get. The obstacle to peace is the Palestinian belief that the Jewish presence throughout the country — including pre-1967 Israel — is illegitimate.