A friend wrote in last week to dispute my critique of Israeli judge Edmond Levy’s settlements report. Levy claimed the West Bank isn’t “occupied” under international law, and therefore settlements aren’t illegal. I wrote that while his interpretation squares with the language of the relevant treaties, not one nation in the world accepts it, so it’s meaningless.
I don’t usually answer my mail in public, but my friend raises some important issues. They’re particularly crucial right now, because they’re closely linked to something of more immediate urgency: the Iranian nuclear crisis. It could reach the boiling point in the coming months. Levy’s report is a critical pawn in an apocalyptic chess game.
Here’s what my friend wrote: “Levy renders a legally correct opinion but it should be rejected, because the world doesn’t like it? Had we accepted such reasoning, there would be no Israel. Our claim to Judea & Samaria isn’t perfect. But it’s as good as anyone else’s.”
That’s a tangle of questions. Let’s start with the easy part: Does the world’s opinion really matter? Well, Levy seems to think so. After all, it was the world, acting through the League of Nations, that voted in 1922 to enshrine the Balfour Declaration in international law, formalizing the Jewish people’s right to a “national home” in Palestine, as Levy notes.
It was also the world, gathered in the United Nations General Assembly, that voted in 1947 despite furious Arab opposition to call for a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine. And it was the world, via the U.N. Security Council, that voted in 1967 to demand Arab acknowledgment of Israel’s “sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence” — in return for Israeli withdrawal “from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”
Israel has claimed since 1967, for reasons I explained last week, that the West Bank isn’t “occupied” under the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the treaty that forbids settling one’s own civilians in occupied territory. No other nation buys this reading. Only America’s veto has kept the Security Council from imposing sanctions for what others deem Israeli violations. After 45 years of quarreling, Israel is increasingly losing the international consensus that midwifed its birth.
What’s so urgent now? Just this: Iran is at most a year or two from nuclear weapons capability, according to every Western intelligence assessment. If Iran gets the bomb, Saudi Arabia and Egypt will follow, and the world’s most turbulent region and main fuel depot will become a powder keg. It’s not only Israel’s problem. But only Israel is threatened with extinction. So Israel needs its allies to stay allied. This is a terrible time to stir outrage.
President Obama has engineered devastating international sanctions, even bringing Russia and China along. Sanctions may not suffice, though. “Everything that’s been tried until now has involved convincing the Iranians to stop,” former Israeli national security adviser Uzi Arad told me. It might work. If not, the next step is blunt force.
Israel’s top defense professionals have argued for months against a military strike, but opposition is wilting in the face of events. How soon? Former Israeli deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh, an ex-general who’s close to Defense Minister (and Iran super-hawk) Ehud Barak, was in Washington on July 12 reporting that Israel sees a window of no more than two months before it’s forced to attack. Any later and the weather will prevent it, he told the Israel Policy Forum. Next spring will be too late.