Israel’s Occupational Hazard

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July 11 (Bloomberg) -- Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have gotten what he wanted from the committee he named to explore ways to legalize unauthorized Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

After all, its chairman, retired Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy, had previously made clear that he rejects the term “occupied territory” to describe the West Bank’s status.

The committee offered a simple way out of the legal morass of determining whether Jewish homes constructed beyond the borders of Israel are legitimate or should be demolished. To build on state land, it said, no approval is necessary beyond that of the zoning and planning authorities of any regular neighborhood. Although this ruling may appeal to Netanyahu, he would be wise to reject it, as it comes with genuine peril.

Jewish settlements in the West Bank aren’t regular neighborhoods. They are outposts of Israeli citizens in land intended to be part of a Palestinian state according to the 1947 United Nations plan to partition the British mandate of Palestine. During the 1967 war, Israel conquered the territory from Jordan, which had annexed it after the 1948 war. Israel has occupied the West Bank since.

“Occupied” is the verb used by the UN, the U.S. and other third parties. Levy and his two fellow panelists don’t see it that way. They argue that Israel is not an occupying force in the West Bank because Jordan’s previous control was never legitimized. Yet that’s a rare view even in Israel. Many officials there dislike the term, but international law regarding occupation has been the basis of Israeli jurisprudence in the West Bank for 45 years. In the first military orders issued after taking the West Bank, Israel cited the Fourth Geneva Convention, which deals with the responsibilities of an occupying power.

Of course, Israel is free to reconsider its position. It would suit Netanyahu if settlers could expand their communities more easily, especially if he could claim he was unable to stop them. The political support of the settlers is important to him. However, government backing of their ambitions invites international opprobrium: Settlements would make it difficult, if not impossible, to create a Palestinian state with any geographic integrity.

Yet even if the Levy committee’s position helped Netanyahu deal with settlement expansion, adopting it would harm Israel’s interests. In the West Bank today, Israelis and Palestinians are governed differently. Israeli settlers have all the rights of any Israeli and participate fully in the country’s robust democracy. In certain districts, Palestinians have limited self-governance, but more broadly they are subject to Israeli military law and have no vote in Israel.

By abolishing the notion of occupation, the Levy committee would eliminate the justification for treating the two populations in different ways. Israel would then have to choose between two unhappy options.

If Israel truly owns and controls the land -- and doesn’t just occupy it -- and if it fails to give equal rights to Palestinians, then it will be accused of segregationist policies. Those policies would come with international isolation and possibly economic sanctions.

Alternatively, if Israel extended equal rights, including the vote, to the Palestinians of the West Bank, it would probably spell the end of the Jewish state. A Jewish state is predicated on a solid Jewish majority, something that would evaporate if Israel found itself in the position of absorbing 2.2 million Palestinians growing at a rate of 2.1 percent a year.

Netanyahu has referred the Levy panel’s work to a ministerial committee for consideration. It would be best if the committee accepts the status quo and Israel keeps working toward a two-state solution.

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