President Shimon Peres spoke out Tuesday against West Bank settlements, stating that they jeopardize the state’s Jewish identity.
“Israeli settlements in territories densely populated with Arabs, which followed their attack on us, can lead to a threatening demographic change. It places a Jewish majority in the State of Israel at risk,” Peres said.
“Without a Jewish majority it is doubtful if the state will remain Jewish,” he said at a ceremony at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in memory of the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl.
Peres spoke just one day after the publication of a government-initiated report on West Bank outposts, which gave a boost to the settlement enterprise by stating that Israel did not occupy the West Bank and that it had a right under international law to build settlements there.
The report also called on the government to transform unauthorized outposts into legal settlements.
Danny Dayan, who heads the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, immediately attacked Peres’s statement.
“The only danger to the State of Israel as a Jewish nation is the failure to believe in our historical right to our land,” he said.
But Israel’s rights to the West Bank have received little support from the international community, which views its settlements as illegal and a stumbling block to the peace process.
The US on Monday reiterated its opposition to Israeli settlement activity and said it did not accept the conclusions of the new report.
“We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity and we oppose any effort to legalize outposts,” US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters in Washington.
The Palestinian Authority, which on Monday rejected the outpost report, has insisted that it won’t hold direct negotiations with Israel until it halts settlement activity and Jewish building in east Jerusalem.
Israel has insisted that it has a right to build both in West Bank settlements and in east Jerusalem.
But until this year it has held to international pledges not to create new settlements. In April it transformed three outposts – Bruhin, Rehalim and Sansana – into settlements. At the time it argued that it was not creating new settlements but rather executing decisions of past governments.
The outpost report did not overly examine Israel’s diplomatic pledges, but rather examined the legal arguments internationally and domestically with respect to settlement activity.
It concluded that since Israel’s activity in the West Bank did not meet the international legal standards of occupation, there was no legal barrier to its settlement activity.
Its conclusions flew in the face of attorney Talia Sasson’s 2005 report commissioned by former prime minister Ariel Sharon. Sasson compiled a list of 105 unauthorized outposts built between 1991 and 2005, arguing they had been illegally constructed and should be taken down.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday praised the report penned by former Supreme Court justice Edmond Levy, former Foreign Ministry legal adviser Alan Baker and former deputy president of the Tel Aviv District Court Tehiya Shapira. It has already been dubbed the “Levy Report.”
Netanyahu added that the Ministerial Committee on Settlements would debate and decide on the matter. The committee received a copy of the report on Sunday and has the full authority to approve its implementation.
The report was publicized on the eve of US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Burns is part of a large US delegation of security and regional experts who are holding a strategic dialogue with Israel this week in the Foreign Ministry. Among the delegation’s members are experts on Syria and Iran.
Burns is expected to meet with Netanyahu and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, as part of an ongoing effort to rekindle the frozen peace talks. His trip will be followed by a visit from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton next week.