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The Levy Committee's New-Old Recommendations

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It took a few days to write down my thoughts on the Levy Committee's recommendations that Israel adopt the legal position that the West Bank is not "occupied" and instead legalize most existing settlements there. In part this is because I just don't see this as a dramatically new development.

Certainly, language as a social medium plays a critical role in how we interact with others and justify our own behavior to them: When we "tell" others what we are doing, we aren't just using language to lay out a set of policies, but also describing who we are, and what we stand and fight for. We thus create a space in which we promote a particular identity as well as set of ideas for action. So whether or not "occupation" is used to describe Israel in the West Bank is an important issue.

But while the Committee's notion that "occupation" doesn't describe Israel's presence in the West Bank does help institutionalize the settlement enterprise, it's only the latest in a longstanding process of extension of Israeli sovereignty over the area. I am, then, closer to Noam Sheizaf's argument that it's not a new position than Michael Koplow's contention that the report represents a critical crossroads for Israel.

Many others seem closer to Michael's position -- the tweets, op-eds, and blog posts that exhibited astonishment and alarm at the Levy recommendations far outnumbered those that took it in stride. I have been wondering why this is, and the best explanation I have come up with is that most Israeli Jews, diaspora Jews, and interested non-Jews simply do not believe that Israel has been purposely extending its sovereignty and control over the West Bank. They have remained convinced that the occupation is temporary, and that Arab hostility makes any question of Israeli withdrawal moot -- or worse, academic. Oh, and anyway, it's not occupation since there never was a Palestinian state in the area and Jordan seized by force a territory designated by the United Nations for Palestinian, not Jordanian, Arabs.

But it's time to face the truth: Israel is at best extremely reluctant to give up the West Bank. Partly this is out of security concerns, and as I've previously argued these are good reasons why Israel cannot just up and leave the area. But most of the political establishment in Israel sees the West Bank as part of Jewish/Israeli heritage, and while they publicly say they would be willing to leave most of the territory, they do not take any specific action toward that end. Yes, party and coalition politics play a role, but it's far more than that. Did Ehud Barak really have to recommend the retroactive legalization of Bruchin, Sansana, and Rachalim in order to remain in the government? When the Israeli public accepts and even normalizes such conditions, there is even less incentive for politicians to act.

This reluctance to see the reality colors every discussion related to settlements. Take Israeli President Shimon Peres' recent statement opposing the legalization of settlements. From the headlines of major Jewish and Israeli papers, you'd think that he opposed settlements on moral grounds, and because they posed a threat to the Jewish state. But what he specifically said was that settlements "in territories densely populated with Arabs ... can lead to a threatening demographic change" (my emphasis). His statement takes on a different connotation and policy recommendation when that line is included.

This is simply a longstanding belief in Peres' thinking about Israel and the West Bank. He was part of the government and the ruling Labor establishment when the first settlements were created, and when efforts to settle in Sebastia were bought off by moving the settlers to the military base at Kadum (the same process that the Netanyahu government used for Ulpana residents). He firmly believed in the Jordanian option (in which the West Bank would be shared between Jordan and Israel) even during the Oslo negotiations. And in 2009 he told U.S. Vice President Joe Biden that Israel could not stop the "natural growth" of settlements.

On the precedence of the Levy report, we should also recall that Labor governments have, since 1967, been busy institutionalizing Israel's presence in the West Bank. In 1969, Labor's central committee approved an "oral document" that accepted the Jordan River as Israel's security border. In 1973, the Galili document (named after Yisrael Galili, who served as Chief of Staff of the Haganah, and as a member of Knesset for Mapam, a party to the left of Labor) called for Israeli settlement in key parts of the West Bank, for security purposes.

Though the document was later rescinded, all Israeli governments have proceeded as though its provisions remain the guiding framework. There have been differences between governments (for instance, Likud expanded the number and location of settlements after 1977), but these have narrowed since the 1990s. No Israeli government has ever stopped settlement building, and even the 2005 Sasson Report (which the Levy Committee was supposed to supersede) noted that Israel had established a set of political and legal criteria that had to be met before new settlements could be authorized. In other words, settlements were still acceptable under specified conditions. This is, of course, outside of the fact that new settlements have been constructed as "neighborhoods" of existing ones.

In short, Israel's insistence on the right of Jews to settle in the West Bank, and the government's facilitation of such an enterprise, should no longer be a surprise. Several precedents have been set already, and there's nothing in the historical record or existing trends to suggest that the government won't also implement -- however slowly or unofficially -- the Levy report either.

First published at Mideast Matrix, July 11, 2012.