Benjamin Netanyahu has a bad habit of pretending he’s Houdini — sticking his head in a noose, scaring everyone half to death, then wiggling free at the last minute. The difference is that Houdini’s viewers got to watch from their seats, while Netanyahu’s audience is stuck inside the noose with him. And the noose gets a little tighter every time.
Bibi’s latest misadventure is the so-called Levy Report, a legal opinion on West Bank settlements that he ordered up last January. Briefly put, it finds that regardless of what the world believes, the occupied territories aren’t occupied, illegal outposts aren’t illegal and Israel is entitled to settle its citizens where it chooses.
The report was supposed to offer a way to avoid a clash with the settler movement, which wanted an end to outpost demolitions. The report removes settler pressure and instead puts the prime minister on a collision course with America and the world community.
Written by a three-member committee headed by former Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy, the report turns Israeli legal and diplomatic doctrine on its head. If adopted, it would put Jerusalem dangerously at odds with Washington, the European Union and the United Nations Security Council. It would tear up Israel’s 2003 signature on President Bush’s Road Map, which requires dismantling 60 outposts and ending new construction. It would open the way for some 4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to demand Israeli citizenship, turning Israel into a binational rather than a Jewish state. Netanyahu has praised the report but hasn’t said whether he’ll adopt it. Much of his cabinet favors it.
Curiously, the central claim, that the West Bank isn’t occupied, isn’t new. Israel has been saying so since it captured the area from Jordan in 1967. It cites the language of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the international treaty that governs treatment of civilians in occupied war zones. The treaty claims jurisdiction over cases where one treaty member-state captures the territory of another member-state. But the West Bank wasn’t Jordan’s to lose. Jordan annexed the area during the 1948 war of Israeli independence, after the Palestinians refused to create their own state under the U.N. partition plan. Nobody but Britain and Pakistan ever recognized Jordan’s annexation. In 1967 Israel captured a no-man’s land, not covered by Geneva.
It’s a reasonable reading of the text. Unfortunately, not one nation in the world accepts it, despite 45 years of Israeli lobbying. Every other nation interprets the convention as covering the West Bank and Gaza, whatever the phrasing. Even Israel has accepted the treaty as a guideline for its army’s administration of the area, since there’s no other body of international law to follow. Israeli courts have consistently ruled that the area is under military occupation, which simply means the army is sovereign there, not Israeli civil law.
The alternative to army rule would be claiming Israeli sovereignty. That would mean either giving Israeli citizenship to all the Palestinian residents, resulting in a binational state and ending Zionism, or else creating two classes of citizenship and defying international laws on apartheid. The second alternative would invite international sanctions, or worse, the sort of multinational military force that intervened when Iraq tried to annex Kuwait in 1990.
Instead Israel has maintained an uneasy truce with the rest of the world by voluntarily applying the Geneva rules except the parts it rejects, like the ban on settling its citizens in occupied territory. Meanwhile, it waits for final ownership to be determined in negotiations, as required in Security Council Resolution 242 in November 1967. That resolution required Israel to withdraw its troops “from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” In return Israel would get full recognition of its “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries.”