The Levy Commission report that earlier this month found Israelis have the legal right to settle in the West Bank is being twisted and distorted by those here who are on both sides of the issue, according to its authors.
“I must say that I am concerned by the misuse of the report by both those who oppose any Israeli presence in the West Bank (the 41 signatories of the IPF letter), as well as by those rightwing politicians who out of ignorance think that it advocates annexation,” Alan Baker, one of the three members of the Levy Commission, said in an e-mail interview.
He was referring to a July 13 letter from the Israel Policy Forum signed by 41 prominent American Jewish leaders and philanthropists that urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to adopt the commission’s findings.
And he was reacting to a media report quoting Israeli Knesset member Danny Danon of the Likud Party as saying that a new congressional initiative led by Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) is aimed at getting Congress to recognize the Levy report. Towards that end, Danon reportedly said Walsh is collecting signatures from other members of Congress. Walsh had introduced legislation last year supporting Israeli annexation of Jewish communities in the West Bank.
The commission had recommended that most West Bank settlements and outposts be legalized and that restrictions on West Bank construction be eased. It stressed that Israel is not an occupying power and that settlement development in the West Bank without planning and zoning approvals must end because what is happening “does not befit the behavior of a state that prides itself on and is committed to the rule of law.”
The signers of the IPF letter said they feared that if the report were approved it would place the idea of a “two-state solution, and the prestige of Israel as a democratic member of the international community, in peril. … Securing Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state requires diplomatic and political leadership, not legal maneuverings. … Our great fear is that the Levy Report will not strengthen Israel’s position in this conflict, but rather add fuel to those who seek to delegimitize Israel’s right to exist.”
Baker, an international lawyer and former Foreign Ministry legal adviser, said by e-mail that his comments critical of the IPF and members of Congress reflected the views of the other members of the commission — former Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy and retired Tel Aviv District Court Judge Tchia Shapira. Their job, he wrote, was simply to “examine the situation of building in Judea and Samaria [West Bank] and to advise the Israeli government accordingly, and to that end had to determine the legal nature of Israel’s presence in the area. Nothing more, nothing less. No hidden political agenda.”
The commission, he added, was simply “legal experts examining a legal situation and making legally oriented recommendations.”
Steven Spiegel, national scholar of the IPF, said that if everyone has “misinterpreted the report, the committee should protest. If they want everyone to know their position, translate it.”
(Baker said he does not know if the nearly 100-page report will be translated.)
“If you want a Jewish and a democratic state it doesn’t do any good to go in this direction,” Spiegel said. “This simply makes negotiations more difficult. … OK, so you say the settlements are legal. What does that do? The only impression I’m left with it is that we don’t need a two-state solution. … The Levy report as presented leads to binationalism.”
But Baker said the report after discussing “Israel’s well-based claims to sovereignty” goes on to state specifically that “Israel is committed in its agreements with the Palestinians to negotiate the permanent status of the territory, and we can therefore assume that these negotiations will be for a two-state solution.”
Peter Joseph, the IPF chairman, said in an interview that the IPF “reaction was not on the legal position and theories being advanced [by the commission], but on the timing and on the message that was conveyed by such a report at this time. … It has blinders in terms of the message it sends to the diplomatic and political process.”
“This report has had an impact affecting people’s sentiments within the Jewish community and world public opinion, and that needs to be taken into account,” he added. “The timing and diplomatic sensitivities are such that the report should not be accepted.”
He noted that the IPF is not against Israelis in the West Bank, as Baker suggested, but rather believes that Israel’s 1967 border be used as the basis for negotiating a two-state solution with land swaps.
The American Jewish Committee was also critical of the commission but not because of its findings — with which it agreed — but because it viewed it as a “distraction from the ongoing quest for a negotiated two-state solution.”
“What may be legal is not always wise,” the AJC said.
It added that the commission’s recommendations that the Israeli government “lift key restrictions on settlement and outpost construction and legalize unauthorized outposts would pose costly and unnecessary political and diplomatic challenges. If accepted by the government, the commission’s findings would offer an unearned excuse for Palestinian resistance to a return to peace talks with Israel — talks Israel is eager to resume, without preconditions.”
Asked about the timing of their report, Baker replied: “In Middle East politics and in the eyes of every observer there’s never a good time to say what needs to be said. If we conducted ourselves according to when it’s wise to do or say what we need to do or say, we wouldn’t exist!”
He said also that he found the news report involving Danon and Walsh “quite amazing,” and added that he was “somewhat taken aback!”
“I think that the Levy report is being stretched out of all logical proportion, and is being utilized — and to a certain extent misused — by those who seek to extend Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank territory,” he wrote. “But evidently none of those who seem to be piggy-backing on the Levy report seem to have read the full report, which makes no claim or recommendation to extend sovereignty.”
Joseph insisted that “reading the report is irrelevant.”
“It is the fact of the report and how people can construe its findings to their political ends [that is troubling],” he said.
Baker added that it is not for the U.S. Congress to adopt or recognize the Levy report because it is “distinctly NOT a political declaration.”
“The Levy report is not a political football to be kicked in all directions but a basic document directing how the Israeli government should regulate the issue of building settlements so that it will be done in accordance with legal and humanitarian criteria,” he stressed.