It’s the Settlements, Stupid: Alon Liel’s Fantastic Vision for Peace in our Time

A guest post by Gidon Ben-Zvi, who blogs at Jerusalem State of Mind

The road to peace? A Jewish child sits in front of the rubble of a structure demolished by Israeli police in a settlement outside Ramallah, on Sept. 5, 2011.

A frenzy of sorts has broken out surrounding a former Israeli ambassador to South Africa’s recent backing of international efforts to prevent produce originating in Jewish settlements in the West Bank from being labeled “Made in Israel”.

The goal of such a policy, according to former ambassador Alon Liel, would be to protect and reinforce the pre-1967 border. Liel goes on to commend the decision of South African and Danish governments to delineate between products originating in Israel and those coming out of “settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories…” since such settlements “…are not [in] Israel [but] are built on occupied land outside Israel’s internationally recognised borders and are illegal under international law.”                                                                                                     

While Liel’s piece is loaded down with references to “international law”, the esteemed former diplomat fails to communicate a most basic fact: international law makes a clear distinction between land occupied during a war of aggression and land taken as a result of a defensive war.

Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in a war of survival. In fact, Israel’s seizing of land in 1967 was, arguably, the ONLY legal acquisition of this territory in the 20th century. In contrast, Jordan’s occupation of the West Bank from 1947 to 1967 had been the result of an offensive war launched against the fledgling Jewish state in 1948. With the exception of Great Britain and Pakistan, this particular occupation was never recognized by the international community, including the Arab states.

Having delegitimized Israel’s claim to the territory it acquired during the Six Day War, Liel then takes aim at that pesky, perpetual enemy of peace in the Middle East: the settlements. According to the former ambassador: “[t]he continuing settlement expansion threatens to make a two-state solution to the conflict impossible.”

Indeed, concern over Israeli settlement construction is not a new issue. Yet, despite the “the expansionist policy of Israel’s rightwing government led by Binyamin Netanyahu”, serious, concerted efforts have been made to determine and cement the legal status of the outposts in the “occupied territories”.

On July 3rd, 2012, a committee tasked with examining the legality of Jewish construction in Judea and Samaria, headed by a retired Israeli Supreme Court justice, concluded that international law does not preclude Israeli construction on land owned by the state. The committee also declared that communities built with government assistance were implicitly authorized.

However, the report that the committee, established by Prime Minister Netanyahu, issued went far beyond merely asserting Israeli sovereignty over the disputed territories. It also made a concerted effort to address lingering legal issues regarding communities which were not built on privately owned Palestinian land, but whose status was still in doubt due to legal bureaucracy.

The report also criticized Israeli government action in the territories, stating that “dozens of new neighborhoods have been erected, without government authorization and at times without a contiguous link to the mother community… several were built outside the legal jurisdiction allotted to the community.”

Having whitewashed the existential threat faced by Israel that precipitated its military response in June, 1967 – against Arab nations openly committed to the destruction of the Jewish State – Liel then proceeds to demonize the Jewish inhabitants of homes that were subsequently built in these territories.

Liel aims to shock with his presentation of the old and intellectually fuzzy demographic time bomb argument: 550,000 Jewish settlers now squatting in the “occupied” lands. Truth be told, over two-thirds of the Jews in the West Bank live in five settlement “blocs” that are all near the 1967 border.

Most Israelis believe these blocs should become part of Israel when final borders are drawn.

Furthermore, built-up settlement area is less than two percent of the disputed territories. An estimated 70 percent of the settlers live in what are in effect suburbs of major Israeli cities such as Jerusalem. These are areas that virtually the entire Jewish population believes Israel must retain to ensure its security.

In short, the main obstacle to peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors has never been the territories, or the settlements, or the settlers – it has been the very existence of Israel. From 1949–67, when Jews were forbidden to live in the West Bank and “East” Jerusalem, the Arabs nonetheless refused to make peace with the “Zionist Entity”.

It is worth considering that the growth in the Jewish population in the territories may actually serve as a catalyst for peace since the Palestinians now realize that time is on the side of Israel, which can build settlements and create facts on the ground. Realizing this, Israel’s peace partners may finally acknowledge that the only way out of its dilemma is face-to-face negotiations, without preconditions. 

Ultimately, the disposition of settlements is a matter for final status negotiations. While one may legitimately support or challenge Israeli settlements in the disputed territories, they are not illegal. Furthermore, Alon Liel’s favorite obstacles to peace have neither the size, population, nor placement to have a serious impact on sincere efforts to reach a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians on issues of disputed territories.

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