The US State Department’s condemnation of the Levy Committee Report, which had the audacity to conclude that the establishment of settlements in the West Bank does not breach international law, shouldn’t come as a surprise. In fact, Foggy Bottom has been a bastion of pro-Arab and anti-Israel officials within the US government since the end of World War II.
In 1948, President Harry S. Truman had to “ride rough-shod” over then-secretary of state George Marshall, who argued against American recognition of the Jewish state.
The most blatant example of this anti-Israel approach of US diplomats is the issue of moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. While the US Congress passed legislation mandating the move in 1995, the legislation contained a provision for a presidential waiver of the move on national security grounds for six months at a time. Every president since has signed the waiver every six months.
And the situation has only deteriorated under the administration of Barack Obama. In March, following the horrific shooting of Jewish children and teachers outside a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, the European Union’s foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, compared the homicidal attack to Israel’s military operations in the Gaza strip.
The State Department responded with silence, with spokesperson Victoria Nuland refusing to condemn the outrageous remark. Trite consolations to the victims’ families were the best that the US State Department could offer up.
And now there’s the response of the US government to the publication of the Levy Committee Report. The official position of the State Department is that it will not “accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity.”
If US geopolitical concerns have led it to stake out such a stance regarding Jewish settlement activity, so be it.
However, to oppose any efforts to legalize settlement outposts is based on the faulty premise that the West Bank’s legal status is a matter of settled international law.
In fact, international law makes a clear distinction between land occupied during a war of aggression and land taken as a result of a defensive war.
Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in a war of survival. In fact, Israel’s seizing of land in 1967 was, arguably, the ONLY legal acquisition of this territory in the 20th century. By contrast, Jordan’s occupation of the West Bank from 1947 to 1967 had been the result of an offensive war launched against the fledgling Jewish state in 1948. With the exception of Great Britain and Pakistan, this particular occupation was never recognized by the international community, including the Arab states.
Some Israeli settlements are indeed being built on land that may become part of a future Palestinian state. However, the very definitions of private and state land in the territories are a legal morass. Based on titles and deeds, land that is registered becomes private property. But what if there are no documents to prove ownership?
What’s now commonly referred to as the West Bank is territory that fell under the successive administrations of the Ottoman Empire, the British mandate, Jordan, and now Israel. During the Ottoman Empire, only small areas of the West Bank were registered to specific owners. Often, villagers would hold land in common to avoid taxes. The British began a more formal land registry based on land use, taxation or house ownership that continued through the Jordanian period.
In short, the lands in question, while no doubt in dispute, are not illegally occupied by Israel.
And there’s nothing new or unique about territorial disputes. Despite obsessive coverage by the international media of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, our world is replete with countries engaged in protracted, yet relatively unreported territorial skirmishes. Here is just a smattering of examples:
- India — Pakistan
- United States — Tokelau
- People’s Republic of China — Bhutan
- France — Madagascar
- Egypt — Sudan
- Australia – Indonesia
- Greece – Turkey
- Japan – People’s Republic of China
- Russia – Kazakhstan
- Canada — Denmark
By once again turning up the pressure on Israel, the US State Department, under the guise of promoting the peace process, actually reflects a mentality in Washington of reluctance to confront unpleasant realities.
First among these delusions is that Israel has a real, committed partner in peace. However, the Palestinian Authority’s pervasive promotion of hatred and terrorism is a long-established fact that is becoming increasingly difficult to whitewash.
Until the US State Department comes to terms with its soft bigotry of low expectations vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the development of an open, free and democratic Palestinian state will remain little more than a siren song: superficially appealing, nearly irresistible – yet ultimately leading to a bad end.