On Tuesday, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu beaming beside him, President Donald Trump finally unveiled his “Deal of the Century” for Israel and the Palestinians.
This was more than an attempt to draw attention away from Trump’s impeachment and Netanyahu’s indictment, which was announced earlier the same day. While the announcement of the deal was intended to serve that purpose, its impact is going to be much greater.
This plan is constructed to ensure Palestinian rejection, and therefore many of its stipulations will never be implemented. But the plan’s real goals are to establish a new diplomatic frame of reference to replace the obsolete Oslo Accords; to establish Israeli annexation of settlements as an Israeli prerogative; and to maintain the U.S.’s role as sole arbiter of the conflict, even if it diminishes its own role in the region. It is very likely to succeed at these goals, and the happy acceptance of the “Deal of the Century” not only by Netanyahu but also by his primary political opponent, former Chief of the General Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces Benny Gantz, is going to make it very difficult politically for any future U.S. president to completely reverse what Trump has accomplished. Read more at Responsible Statecraft
The Irish Senate passed a bill last week that would criminalize doing any business, in goods or services, with Israeli settlements. As with most legislation that concerns Israeli settlement activity, the
Irish Senator Frances Black, who first proposed the anti-settlements bill
bill is already highly controversial. Supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement have hailed it as a great victory while the usual suspects in and outside of Israel have leveled baseless accusations of anti-Semitism at Ireland and made disingenuous arguments to oppose any action against Israel’s blatantly illegal settlement program. Read more at LobeLog
On Sunday the Israeli cabinet unanimously passed a bill that would legalize settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank that were built on privately owned
Banner reads “Every house that is demolished is a victory for Hamas.” This refers only to Jewish-owned houses in settlements.
Palestinian land. If passed by the Knesset, the law could potentially be used to raise the status of many outposts all over the West Bank to those of settlements that are legal under Israeli law. That would be a tremendous setback to the already dimming prospects of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, and to the two-state solution.
The Obama Administration made clear its opposition to the bill. “This would represent an unprecedented and troubling step that’s inconsistent with prior Israeli legal opinion and also break long-standing policy of not building on private Palestinian land,” State Department Spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said. “We hope it doesn’t become law.”
What is the “formalization law”?
The bill in question is referred to colloquially as the “formalization law.” It would allow the Israeli government to retroactively legalize outposts built in the West Bank if the outpost was set up on privately owned Palestinian land with government involvement, but was not an officially sanctioned settlement. Palestinian owners would not be able to retrieve their land, but would be entitled to financial compensation at a value determined by the Israeli government.
How does this change the status quo?
Israel has retroactively legalized specific outposts many times in the past. This law, however, would allow the Israeli government to retroactively legalize an outpost quickly, preventing the Israeli judicial system from compelling the state to dismantle the outpost. While this law is not solely a response to the current dispute over the Amona outpost, that dispute has accelerated the motion on this bill.
What are the specific problems with the bill?
Israeli Attorney General, Avichai Mendelblit, stated that the bill is inconsistent with Israel’s rule of law, violates international law, and seeks to undermine the status of the High Court of Israel. It is an attempt to legalize a procedure that also violates Israeli jurisprudence and precedent since the beginning of the occupation that has agreed that the State cannot simply confiscate privately owned Palestinian land for settlements. Forcing landowners to accept a payment in exchange does not mitigate this, as the Court has repeatedly confirmed.
What is the status of the bill now?
The approval of the bill by the ministerial committee means that it will come to the Knesset floor for readings, debates and, eventually, votes. It must pass three readings in the Knesset to become law.
Is the bill controversial, or will it pass easily?
The bill is being pushed hard by the religious nationalist Jewish Home Party and its leading ministers, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked (ironically, Shaked, the Minister of Justice, is opposed in this effort by the people in her own ministry, who agree with the Attorney General). Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to recognize that the bill is going to damage Israel in the international community and could provoke action from the outgoing Obama administration. Still, he has yielded to pressure from the settler movement and approved the bill along with the rest of the ministers who voted to bring the bill to the Knesset. Netanyahu objected mostly to the timing, hoping he could delay both this bill and the High Court’s decision on the Amona outpost until after President Obama left office, but he failed on both counts.
There is no doubt that the opposition, led by the Yesh Atid and Zionist Union parties will oppose this bill. Much will depend on whether lawmakers from Likud and other center-right parties join them. The fact that the Attorney General opposes the bill is very important, and may very swell sway enough Knesset members to oppose it. But with both Bennett and Netanyahu, as well as, quite likely, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman supporting the bill, political pressure on coalition MKs will be intense. One faction, the Kulanu party which is part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, had been opposed to the bill, but relented under pressure from Netanyahu, who did not wish to see his coalition fracture over this issue.
The bill has now passed its first reading in the Knesset. Two more readings are required for the bill to become law. The bill is not being submitted for a second reading yet. There is time for friends of Israel to try to convince the Prime Minister and the rest of his cabinet not to move forward with this bill. But the Jewish Home faction is sure to press for the bill to move forward, so the time to act is now.
On Wednesday, in the wake of Israel’s announcement of hundreds of more units in West Bank settlements, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted a page on its website articulating its view that building in the occupied West Bank is legal under international law and is not, as many critics claim, an impediment to peace. The fact that the MFA felt the need to make such a case indicates that rising international criticism, particularly from the U.S., is having an impact, and that case bears an examination of its key claims.
Israel claims that the settlements are not illegal because the laws of belligerent occupation do not apply to the West Bank and that the prohibition against transferring citizens of an occupying power to occupied territory “…applied to forcible transfers and not to the case of Israeli settlements.”
The vast majority of legal opinions, including those of the High Court of Justice in Israel and the US State Department (which consistently refers to the West Bank as “occupied territory”), directly contradict this claim. As recently as 2004, the High Court in Israel ruled “…that Israel holds the (West Bank) in belligerent occupation,” and that its authority over the Palestinians “… flows from the provisions of public international law regarding belligerent occupation.” No ruling since has superseded this view.
Indeed, in an analysis requested by the Israeli Prime Minister’s office in 1967 regarding the potential legality of settlements in the then-newly occupied territories, Israeli Foreign Ministry legal adviser Theodor Meron wrote, “My conclusion is that civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” This is the overwhelming consensus view of international legal opinion, and contradicts Israel’s claim that Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention applies only to forcible transfers, rather than voluntary ones like those of Israeli settlers.
Israel says “the current Israeli government, like several preceding governments, has limited Jewish construction primarily to those areas that are fully expected to remain under Israeli control in any final agreement with the Palestinians.”
Israel has been given no guarantee, by the Palestinians, the United States or any other party, that any specific part of the West Bank would be ceded or traded to Israel in any final agreement. The building of settlements anywhere clearly contradicts the spirit of Oslo’s Declaration of Principles, which states: “The two sides view the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit, whose integrity will be preserved during the interim period.”
Further, it is not clear what is meant when “settlement blocs” which Israel is likely to keep are discussed. The “blocs” have never been defined. Former Israeli diplomat and leading member of Israel’s Council for Peace and Security, Shaul Arieli quotes Prime Minister Netanyahu as saying that “my blocs are not the blocs of the left,” and points out that Netanyahu’s list includes as many as nine settlement blocs which clearly block any possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state.
Moreover, Israel has begun a process of legalizing many of the 100 so-called “illegal outposts” in the West Bank, most of which are well outside any built up settlement areas.
Finally, the settlement blocs themselves govern territory far larger than their built-up areas, and this territory has been steadily expanding. Many of the blocs have grown to the point where they already threaten the contiguity, and thus the economic viability, of any potential Palestinian state in the West Bank. There are now well over 400,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank in 123 settlements and 100 outposts. As that population grows and spreads, the possibility of creating a Palestinian state with land swaps to accommodate them becomes ever more remote.
Israel says it has “…rights, needs and genuine threats to its safety, in particular in view of the rise of radical elements in the region such as ISIS, al-Qaeda and Hizbullah.”
There is an undeniable Jewish connection to the land of the West Bank. But this does not grant Israel the right to territory beyond its internationally recognized borders. Any resolution to this conflict must acknowledge and make some accommodation for the connection that both Israelis and Palestinians feel to the whole of the land, but this is a matter for negotiation, not a pre-determined right.
The United Nations charter deems the acquisition of land by force as inadmissible. Nonetheless, the international community has long since recognized that some territorial changes are inevitable, as long as they are agreeable to both Israelis and Palestinians.
Israel clearly has legitimate security concerns, but those concerns do not supersede Palestinians’ basic rights to a viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent state. Israel must address their security concerns in partnership with their allies and particularly with the Palestinians. As the undisputed military superpower in the region, and with the United States at its side, Israel should be well positioned to find a way to satisfy its security concerns without compromising a Palestinian state.
Finally, Israel lists among the outstanding issues for negotiation the “status of refugees on both sides.”
The issue of Palestinian refugees is perhaps the most troublesome of all the questions that need to be resolved. This is a core issue for Palestinians, but it is one that Israelis see as threatening their country’s very existence as a Jewish state. Doubtless, this issue will be difficult to resolve and will require major compromise and good will on both sides.
While the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands is a serious and legitimate one for Israel, it has nothing to do with the Palestinians. Jewish refugees from Arab lands have legitimate claims against those countries from which they were expelled or fled. Attempting to pair this with Palestinian refugees who were driven out or fled from Israelis in 1948 and 1967 needlessly complicates an already complicated problem and sends a message that Israel is not serious about resolving this vexing issue.
It is true that the settlements are only one of a number of issues to be addressed in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But they are the one issue through which Israel tangibly and unilaterally raises the costs of achieving that resolution, brick by brick, day by day. Supporters of peace do neither side any favors by denying the settlements’ provocative nature or downplaying the threat they pose to a final agreement.
Rebecca Vilkomerson has been a member of Jewish Voice for Peace since 2001 and the group’s Executive Director since 2009. She lived with her family in Israel from 2006-2009. In 2010 she was named one of the 50 most influential Jewish American leaders by the Forward, and was named one of “14 Women to Watch” in 2014.
FMEP: Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) has, in some ways, been a lightning rod for the global movement for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel (BDS). Many people can’t reconcile the idea of a Jewish organization advocating a boycott of Israel. Obviously, this is especially true for those who see BDS as unfairly anti-Israel, even anti-Semitic. As the Executive Director of JVP, how do you respond to those charges? And, perhaps a parallel question, what would you say are the major differences between the public perception of the BDS movement and its reality?
Rebecca Vilkomerson: From a personal perspective, I don’t think that endorsing BDS is anti-Israel in the least. The demands of BDS are about transformation. Just as ending apartheid in South Africa did not destroy it, addressing the three demands of the BDS movement would change Israel fundamentally–ideally in ways that would bring equality and freedom for all people in the region, something I would hope would be of interest to most people.
I do want to de-couple the concepts of “anti-Israel” and “anti-Semitic.” As JVP’s statement on anti-Semitism says, in part, “Definitions of anti-Semitism that treat criticism of Israel or of Zionism as inherently anti-Semitic are inaccurate and harmful. The majority of Jews are not Israeli, and not all citizens of Israel are Jewish. Israel is a state; Zionism is a political ideology; Judaism and Jewish identity encompass a diversity of religious and secular expressions and a robust, varied set of traditions, cultures, and lived experiences.”
And that being said, I want to make a case for the legitimacy of “anti-Israel” as a category. It’s often used as an accusation, as a way to end discussion and almost always linked to or tainted by anti-Semitism. But Palestinians, whether in Israel or under Occupation or in diaspora, have experienced unbearable loss–of home, property, rights and life–at the hands of Israel. They may be deeply angry or hate the state of Israel based on their direct experiences with violence at its hands. To demand that they fight for their rights while loving or caring for Israel as a Jewish state, defined by their exclusion or subordination, is not just absurd but cruel. For those of us doing this work in part because we want to see Israel become a better place, it is incumbent upon us to understand and defend those who are struggling simply for the sake of their basic rights with no love lost for the state that oppresses them.
In terms of the second half of the question, I think there are numerous misconceptions about BDS. The reality is that the three core demands of BDS are actually a quite moderate call for basic internationally recognized rights: full equality for all, the end of occupation and the Palestinian right of return. While Jewish communities often react strongly in particular to this last demand, it is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, my own children have the right to a German passport under the same principle.
BDS does not require a one state solution; in fact, many Palestinian groups that endorsed the BDS call actually endorse two states.
The BDS movement is a Palestinian-led movement originating from a call by a broad coalition of civil society institutions. Its global network of supporters is inclusive, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-faith, including many Jews from around the world among the individual and organizational supporters. I have always found that the Boycott National Committee, the leadership body of the BDS movement, conducts itself with the highest ethical and anti-racist standards, contrary to common accusations in Jewish communities.
Finally, I think it is important to remember that BDS is a set of tactics and demands, not an end unto itself. I recommend that those who have questions go to the BDS website and look around. I am always astonished by how many people have criticisms who haven’t gone to the primary source.
FMEP: In 2010, the Jewish weekly newspaper, The Forward, listed you as one of the 50 “most influential Jewish leaders.” In 2013, the Anti-Defamation League listed JVP as one of the top 10 “anti-Israel groups” in the country. That seems like a really good illustration of the sharp divisions among American Jews that you and JVP more broadly provoke. How do you see your relationship to the Jewish community, including, but not limited to, the major Jewish institutions?
RV: Years ago, when JVP was much smaller, we made some effort to get a “place at the table” at some local Jewish Federations, Jewish Community Relations Councils, Hillels, etc., with the assumption that we belonged in any umbrella group of the Jewish community. Our hope was to challenge the bigger institutions’ positions on Israel/Palestine from the inside, especially once they knew that significant numbers of their community shared our position. However, we were never successful, and in recent years, specific guidelines have been put in place in many of these institutions to exclude JVP or others who share our views.
More recently, as we’ve continued to grow and the red lines that prevent honest debate about Israel/Palestine and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) have hardened in establishment Jewish institutions, we have evolved a somewhat different approach. JVP is a vibrant Jewish community to which people can connect through chapters in their hometowns, or as Rabbis, academics, students, labor activists, or health workers. Our members are showing up together to support other justice struggles like the Movement for Black Lives and the fight against the Dakota Pipeline because they see JVP as their political home. This year, for the first time we are livestreaming High Holiday services from four synagogues and chavurot (communally organized Jewish practice communities) from around the country for members who don’t have access to spiritual spaces where they can bring their full political selves to Jewish practice.
In other words, we are creating our own alternative Jewish institution that doesn’t need approval from or inclusion in the self-identified “major” Jewish institutions. We are creating a new model for Jewish communal life, one that welcomes and centers the multiplicities of Jewish experiences and histories and does not insist on a separation between justice for Palestinians and Jewish identity. It feels good that other organizations like IfNotNow, Open Hillel and the Center for Jewish Non-Violence are also emerging. We may not share the exact same approach or focus, but we have enough in common that it feels like a new universe of Jewish space is opening.
Ultimately I really believe that it is to the detriment of the mainstream Jewish communities that they are excluding a vibrant, engaged, and growing segment of the Jewish community in the U.S.
FMEP: With many thousands of members and more than 60 chapters across the country, JVP has certainly magnified its impact from its humble beginnings twenty years ago. But you face the same question all of us working on this issue face: in that time, the Israeli occupation has only tightened, US policy has become even more entrenched, and Palestinian despair has grown. Given that troubling reality, what is the path to success that you see, in both the short and long term?
Also, more than any President before him, Barack Obama came into office with the announced intention of finally ending the Israeli occupation and reaching a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Eight years later, Obama will leave office with the situation considerably worse than when he came in, and it seems clear that the next administration, whether Clinton or Trump, is going to be much less concerned about the occupation than Obama. What do you expect going into the next administration, and how do you think it will affect JVP’s efforts?
RV: Your framing is really important and a reminder to all of us of how we have to ground our work in a feeling of urgency given the realities on the ground. But that feeling of urgency also has to be tempered with the reality of what we’re up against–the biggest U.S. aid package to Israel ever just being approved is one reminder. I’ve combined my answers to your last two questions because I think that JVP is playing a longer game than just the next administration.
We see the U.S. as the linchpin that allows Israel to continue its destructive policies, through the military, economic and diplomatic aid and cover the U.S. offers. And we (and by “we” here I mean JVP and all the other groups doing this work) know we need to build a seriously strong grassroots movement, as other movements have done at other moments in our history, in order to bring about a profound change in the U.S. approach to Israel. That is the only power that can go up against the Israel lobby, which includes Christian Zionist organizations, Jewish organizations like AIPAC, and the US arms industry which profits directly from military aid packages to Israel.
Public opinion is demonstrably changing. To offer just one example, 49% of Democrats now support economic sanctions on Israel over settlement construction, according to a Brookings Institution poll from last year. It is clear that the bipartisan consensus around Israel is crumbling, and a new coalition of women, young people, and people of color are emerging that see Palestinians and Israelis as peoples that deserve equal rights and freedom and are willing to take action in support of that belief. Palestinian rights are becoming an integral part of the progressive agenda, like racial, economic and climate justice. So while I don’t have immediate hopes (and do have a lot of fears) for the next administration, I also have a lot of optimism about where this movement is going to take us in the long term.