|לְזַרְעֲךָ֗ נָתַ֙תִּי֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את מִנְּהַ֣ר מִצְרַ֔יִם עַד־הַנָּהָ֥ר הַגָּדֹ֖ל נְהַר־פְּרָֽת׃ – בְּרֵאשִׁית 15:18|
|To your descendants have I given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river Euphrates – Bereshit 15:18|
In its last major act of 2017, the Likud’s Central Committee voted unanimously to propose a resolution in the Knesset that would extend Israeli civilian jurisdiction to all Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, or what is also known as the West Bank. The vote comes barely three weeks after US president Donald Trump declared that the United States recognises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would be soon moving its embassy to the city from its present location in Tel Aviv. Trump’s declaration caused a minor crisis in the United Nations with the overwhelming majority of the world’s nation-states condemning the US decision.
Although many see the Central Committee’s decision as a ripple effect of Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, the item had been tabled for discussion in May but was delayed by seven months. Neither is the desire to annex the West Bank new – the sentiment goes back to at least 1967 and several of Israel’s first generation had been opposed to the partition plan in November 1947 that created yet another Arab state in the British Palestinian mandate.
It would be wrong, however, to see the Central Committee’s vote in purely ideological terms. In an interesting recent study of the motives behind settlements, several scholars have argued that the majority of settlers do not share the ideology of the Gush Emunim or its descendants. Rather, they are preoccupied with quotidian socioeconomic concerns such as affordable housing, office commute, and a lower cost of living. This is not to deny the ideological attraction to the entirety of the land among certain segments of Israeli society.
There are also mundane, logistical issues that an extension of Israeli sovereignty over all settlements will solve. Judea and Samaria, or YOSH as their Hebrew acronym goes, is presently run by a military administration that has the jurisdiction of all territory that Israel has not officially claimed. No matter how well-intentioned such a bureaucracy is, it is simply not trained to handle the complexities of civilian demands and the duty is an unnecessary burden on the military. Furthermore, it is odious to democracies that the military rule over civilians. Handing over the settlements to the civilian authority makes much more sense.
The common counter-argument to extending Israeli sovereignty over the settlements in YOSH – it should be remembered that this is just a proposal by the Likud’s Central Committee to its members in the Knesset to introduce a resolution to the effect and that such a resolution must pass to become law – is that it violates Art. 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which Israel ratified in 1951. Yet there are several legal complications involved in applying the said piece of international law to the territory in question. The first is if the West Bank can even be considered occupied territory for the question immediately arises, occupied from whom? The San Remo Resolution (1920) and the Mandate for Palestine (1922) both saw YOSH, Gaza, and East Jerusalem as part of a Jewish state. Israeli control over the territory, however, came only after the Six-Day War in June 1967 when YOSH was taken from Jordan – which had itself annexed it in April 1950. Even before the Jordanian annexation, the Arabs had rejected UN Resolution 181 that proposed a separate Jewish state and yet another Arab state in the British mandatory territory of Palestine; an independent country called Palestine has never existed in all of history even for a day. Whether the Geneva Conventions govern relations between state parties and non-state entities is a legal debate of its own.
Although the international consensus is that Art 49 does apply to Jewish settlements, Morris Abram, part of the US team at the Nuremburg Trials and later one of the drafters of the Fourth Geneva Convention, clarified in 1990 that the Article “was not designed to cover situations like Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, but rather the forcible transfer, deportation or resettlement of large numbers of people.” This is because the language speaks in terms of government coercion to transfer people which is not the case in YOSH. Jewish settlements have mostly occurred on open land rather than in urban settings and Israeli law clearly states that privately held land may not be confiscated.
It is by virtue of negotiations with Israel that any recognition of Palestinian political rights come into existence. The series of talks, agreements, and memoranda between Israel and its interlocutors have created an entire unique and particular framework – a lex specialis – by which the question of settlements must be adjudicated.
What is interesting about the Central Committee vote is that Benjamin Netanyahu was not present for it; the Israeli prime minister has in the past voiced his support for a separate Palestinian state although his critics point out that Netanyahu has in fact taken steps in the other direction. At a time when his tenure is being rocked by a corruption investigation, allowing such a resolution to pass might win him easy support with the Right.
In concert with the law the Knesset just passed that has made the ceding of any part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians in an eventual peace settlement more difficult by raising the number of votes required to pass such a bill from a simple majority to an absolute majority, critics are fuming that the Likud Central Committee’s resolution is clear proof that the Israeli Right was never interested in a just peace and Trump’s declaration emboldened them to make an overt land grab that had so far at least had the decency to be conducted on the sly.
Beyond the cynicism, however, there could be a strategic reason behind the demand to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank. As Trump did three weeks ago with his Jerusalem declaration, the Likud has raised the price of delaying genuine peace talks for the Palestinians. Moderate Israelis to this day smart at the failure of Camp David Summit in July 2000 when Yasser Arafat was offered almost everything he could hope for and yet walked away from the table. The tortuous negotiating process during Oslo that ultimately had little effect in curbing terrorism has also soured many on peace. The Likud’s proposal is not yet law but allowing it to pass might be a signal by Netanyahu to the Palestinians that Israel is still holding some cards and the Palestinians do have more to lose.
Turning the screws on the Palestinians may not yield any results but then, nothing else has either. Israel has no room to manoeuvre with a foe that still declares in its charter that the Jewish state has no right to exist and calls for its destruction. Until Jerusalem has a partner for peace in the Arabs – as Egypt and then Jordan have demonstrated – the guns will not fall silent in the Holy Land. Between Trump and the Likud’s new playbook, it is just possible that they shake loose the peace process from its ossified status quo.