The folly at Givat Ze'ev

We flout international law and antagonize our friends when we build settlements.

Beitar Construction 224. (photo credit: Courtesy [file])
Beitar Construction 224.
(photo credit: Courtesy [file])
The admonition delivered to Israel by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice regarding its resumption of the construction of 750 housing units in Givat Ze'ev raises afresh the question of establishing or expanding Jewish settlements in territories generally considered to be Palestinian. These admonitions were accompanied by strongly worded statements made by the secretary-general of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, and by the EU, referring to Israel's road map undertaking to cease such settlement activities. These statements demonstrate once more the issues at stake. Rice's soft reprimand describing the Israeli decision as "unhelpful" is especially significant as it was delivered by the friendliest American administration Israel has ever had, and made at a time when Israel is facing grave security dilemmas and crucial decisions. There are two separate questions relating to settlements. The first relates to their legality and rightfulness; the second to their desirability. FOR MOST Orthodox Jews, the first question is irrelevant: They fervently believe that settling the historic cradle of Jewish civilization is a matter of divine will and faith-ordained duties. But for most Israelis, who want their state to be both Jewish and democratic as well as a member of the family of democratic nations, issues of rightfulness are of cardinal importance. Settling Jews outside of Israel proper is - it is submitted - illegal in international law and is defective morally. The fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel has signed and ratified, prohibits such settlements. True, the Knesset has not translated these provisions into Israeli legislation, but in the opinion of this writer such an act of domestic reception is unnecessary as the convention by its very definition relates to occupied territories which lie outside the limits of Israeli law and jurisdiction. At any rate, Israel accepts the humanitarian provisions of this convention, and the Supreme Court has acted upon these provisions. The government has declared, in sworn affidavits, that settlements in occupied territories are there for a limited duration and are justified by military considerations. These declarations are, to put it mildly, not accurate. THESE SETTLEMENTS, established at great cost to provide housing for tens of thousands of Jews, are seen as permanent communities; the uprooting of settlements from the Gaza Strip was a heartrending experience even for those who advocated this decision at the time. For successive Israeli governments to state the opposite and for the courts to accept this blatant untruth, has been an exercise in unmitigated insincerity. But the issue is not merely one of international law. By establishing purely Jewish communities in the West Bank and by applying an Israeli legal system to their residents, Israel has created a dual system within the same territory - one applicable to Jews, and one to Arabs. This duality has had a negative impact on Israeli public life, has rightly antagonized many of our friends and is responsible for the radicalization of the Israeli Left. It also nullifies the equation often made between these settlements and the ones established by the yishuv under the British mandate. The socialist settlers of the past saw themselves as precursors of a Jewish state in which Jews and Arabs shared the same equality by law and never dreamt of any separation between Arabs and Jews. Add to this the flouting of Israel's undertaking to stop establishing and expanding these settlements, and you will begin to understand the folly of the Givat Ze'ev decision. In short, Israel, according to its basic laws, aspires to be both Jewish and democratic. Its outposts in the West Bank are Jewish, but not democratic. This is why this writer considers these settlements to be one of Israel's gravest errors - an error which led to a head-on collision with international law and with our friends overseas. BUT THE second question is relevant even to Israelis who do not agree with my premises. Assuming that the above statements are wrong, either because divine duty supersedes all or because my legal analysis is wrong, the question still remains: Is it desirable, from a viewpoint of purely Israeli self-interest, to flout international public opinion and disregard our friends' advice in order to establish settlements in which a small fraction of our population lives? Is it wise to invite the ire of foe and friend because of the will to settle Jews on the hills of Samaria and Judea, and to do this in a period when Israel is facing such grave dangers to its security and existence? Because of Islamic radicalism and Arab rejection, Israel finds itself in dire straits; in effect, we are back in 1948 - a small island in a sea of Arab enmity and Muslim fanaticism. The chances of reaching a lasting peace with our enemies, including a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran, are slim. True, this fathomless hatred of the Jewish state would not be affected by a cessation of new settlements. But that's not the issue. In order to survive, we must rely on the active help of others. It is folly to antagonize these others, and above all the US, in order to satisfy the religious and political wishes of a minority. Rice's admonition should be heard loud and clear in Jerusalem. The writer is a professor of Law at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, a former Minister of Education and MK, and the recipient of the 2006 Israel Prize in Law.