Why is Israel hiding while its Palestinian "peace partners" are accusing the Jewish state of engaging in an illegal enterprise? In case you missed it, the Palestinian Authority is planning to introduce a resolution to the United Nations Security Council this week declaring all Jewish settlements "illegal." It's not enough that most of the world already believes this; the Palestinians are feeling so confident these days, they've decided to push their luck and intensify their campaign to malign Israel.
Israel, no doubt expecting that the United States will veto the measure, has responded by burying its head in the sand. This is a big mistake.
For one thing, hiding reinforces the image of guilt. Israel already looks super-guilty on the issue of settlements. Keeping quiet suggests to the world that Israel essentially agrees with the accusations.
But beyond the need to play defense, this resolution offers, I believe, a chance for Israel to win a rare public relations victory on a global stage. Israel can use the U.N. forum to turn the tables on the Palestinians and present to the world a message it never hears.
It can actually push back on the issue of the legality of settlements.
You're probably thinking: How can anyone in his right mind challenge the accepted truism that the Jewish settlements are illegal? And even if Israel could successfully make a case that the settlements are not illegal, so what? How could that contribute to the peace process or the two-state solution?
The sharpest answer I've heard on this point came from Talia Shulman Gold, the local representative of CAMERA, a watchdog organization that fights anti-Israel bias in the media. Because I sit on its board of advisers, I recently hosted a small gathering at my home. That night, after Shulman Gold made the case that any discussion of the legality of settlements must include the resolution of the League of Nations in San Remo in 1922, I asked her that very question: "So what? Even if you're right, how will this help move us forward?"
"Israel must show the world that it is not a thief," she answered. "Even if Israel ends up giving up the West Bank, it must show that it is doing it for peace -- not because it is returning stolen land. As long as the world believes the Palestinian narrative that this is stolen land, Israel's painful land concessions have no perceived value. This is one reason negotiations have gone nowhere."
What I liked about her answer is that it opens up conversation, instead of slamming the door shut. My eyes glaze over when I hear arguments from some of my friends on the religious right, such as, "We can't give back the land because God gave it to us!" This might well be true, but it doesn't make for great conversation. It makes everything black and white.
One point Shulman Gold tried to bring home the other night is that the legality of Jewish settlements is anything but black and white. If you're interested in this subject, I suggest you Google Middle East scholar Eli E. Hertz and go to his Myths and Facts Web site (mythsandfacts.com), in particular the section on "Mandate for Palestine." He describes this mandate as "an historical League of Nations document [that] laid down the Jewish legal right to settle anywhere in western Palestine, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, an entitlement unaltered in international law."
According to Hertz, this was not "a naïve vision briefly embraced by the international community," but, rather, a unanimous declaration by the entire League of Nations (51 countries) on July 24, 1922, which he quotes: "Whereas recognition has been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country."
Hertz, as well as many others, makes a case that the League of Nations agreement was legally "inherited" by the United Nations, that it has never been revoked and that it is still legally binding according to international law. Subsequent U.N. resolutions, they argue, even the one establishing the State of Israel, did not override the League of Nations agreement and never established the illegality of Jewish settlements. They also punch holes in the strongest argument against their case, article 49 of the Fourth Geneva convention.
My point here is not to sway you one way or the other on the legality of Jewish settlements. It's simply to suggest that this issue is a lot more complicated than the Palestinian public relations machine alleges and to suggest that Israel should not be afraid to stand up at the United Nations this week and face this P.R. monster head on.
Israel should make a bold and compelling case based on international law that it doesn't believe the settlements are illegal, and then tell the world the following: "For years, Israel has offered to evacuate Jewish settlements for the sake of peace. We have done so not because we think the settlements are illegal, but because we value peace so highly.
"Unfortunately, because so many of our past offers and gestures have been rewarded by terror, rejection and bad faith, the mood among many of our people today is guided by extreme caution and mistrust.
"The resolution advanced by our Palestinian neighbors this week is another example of a needless and poisonous gesture -- one that inevitably will breed even more mistrust and take us even further away from peace and reconciliation."
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