Most Israelis never thought settlements were illegal

Middle Israel: It’s not the law, stupid

A VIEW of the Elon Moreh settlement in the West Bank. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A VIEW of the Elon Moreh settlement in the West Bank.
‘A fanatic,” said Winston Churchill, “can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”
A manipulator, one might add, will change the subject rather than change his mind. That is certainly what the so-called international community did following the Six Day War, whose outbreak was largely its fault, and whose results it could not bear.
The term “international community,” much like the term “illegal settlements,” is elusive, but in this context it can be defined as what the Western powers and the former Eastern Bloc agreed on the morning after the Six Day War.
The need to change the subject in both East and West was urgent, albeit for entirely different reasons. The Western need stemmed from its leaders’ failure to confront Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, after he blockaded Israel’s access to the Red Sea via the Straits of Tiran in May 1967.
The Eastern Bloc’s problem was the IDF’s defeat of Soviet-made jets and tanks along with their Soviet-trained commanders.
The way to change the subject was to follow the line of Arab governments’ propaganda war on Israel, which had long set out to change the subject from Arab leaders’ political misjudgment and military debacles to the mystifying subject of Israel’s character.
As Bernard Lewis showed in Semites and Anti-Semites (1986), state-run Arab presses mass-printed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, while state-run newspapers blamed Israel for everything, from Western abortions to Kennedy’s assassination, and Arab diplomacy pressured the Vatican to uphold its accusation of “the Jews” as the killers of God.
The idea, like the biblical Balaam’s, was to shift the war on Israel from the military sphere, where it had failed, to a psychological plane, where it might succeed.
Since 1967 that Arab effort was globalized.
IN RUSSIA, the Communist empire’s media dusted off classical antisemitism’s graphic tools, ordering cartoonists to depict Israeli leaders as bloodthirsty marauders, and columnists to besmirch the Jewish state as imperialist, colonialist, and racist.
In France, the same Charles de Gaulle who in spring ’67 demanded that Israel ignore its blockading said, after it broke the blockade, that “the Jews” are “an elite people,” a “domineering” breed prone to be “warlike” and display the “burning and conquering ambition” of a nation “determined to expand.”
De Gaulle was angry and rude, but his exhortation represented a broader Western displeasure with Israel’s resolve. From the viewpoint of that “international community,” Israel was to be weak, quiet and submissive, and not disturb Arab oil’s flow to the rest of the world (except Israel).
This was the atmosphere in which the “international community” wielded a weapon Israel had not previously faced, the accusation that the very Israel that had been the target of international law’s most blatant violators was in fact the Mideast conflict’s real lawbreaker.
The legal case against Israel was based on the Fourth Geneva Convention’s assertion that forbade transferring populations into and out of occupied lands. This argument was refuted by towering jurists, from former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar to former dean of Yale Law School Eugene Rostow.
Shamgar noted that occupied territory must, by definition, be wrested from an internationally recognized sovereign. This prerequisite did not exist in Israel’s case, since no one except Pakistan recognized the West Bank’s Jordanian annexation in 1950.
Rostow – who was undersecretary of state in the Johnson administration and a coauthor of UN Security Council Resolution 242 – noted that Israel’s settlers were not being forcibly led to their settlements, but arrived there voluntarily, and the Palestinian neighbors were not being displaced to make way for them, all of which rendered baseless the analogies to the Geneva Convention’s letter and spirit.
Back in Israel, the territorial debate raged ever since summer ’67, yet it was not about the legality, but about the wisdom, of blanketing the territories with Jews.
THE SWATH of Israeli society that hoped to someday reach a land-for-peace deal backed Israel’s return to the Etzion Bloc and its annexation of east Jerusalem, despite the consensus across the “international community” that Efrat, Gilo and Ramot are illegal settlements.
Land-for-peace Israelis thought, and still think, that Israelis should avoid settling in densely Palestinian areas like Nablus or Jenin, but indeed should settle in largely empty areas, like the Jordan Valley, where Labor-led governments indeed planted over the years 28 kibbutzim and moshavim.
It would be silly to expect the “international community” to consider such Israeli sensitivities before setting out to help the Palestinian strategy of equating all things Israeli with illegality. It would not have been silly, however, for the “international community” to consider the practicality of exposing Israel to juridical attack, for two reasons:
First, on the practical plane, Jewish jurists could be counted on to come out of the woodwork and win such a war. Second, on the emotional plain, this attack’s masterminds should have known what kind of thoughts come to most Jews’ minds when other Jews’ legal deeds are decried as “illegal.”
As Middle Israelis see things, the juridical attack on Israel was driven not by concern for the law but by nefariousness and delusion, the delusion that peace can be delivered by harassing Israel; that lawfare can force an Israeli retreat, a forced retreat engineered by Europe, the same Europe that in 1967 stood by when Israel’s enemies broke the laws of international navigation and while at it vowed to erase the Jewish state.
This week the US formally rejected the conventional wisdom that the settlements are illegal. It was a reflection of the practicality for which Americans are famous. Europeans are not practical, preferring to do the right thing after exhausting all other possibilities, to paraphrase Abba Eban.
It took half a century for Washington to change course, but an eye-rolling Europe still clings to its juridical manipulation, ever ready to change the subject rather than change its mind.
The writer’s bestselling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019), is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.