Israeli Towns and Villages in the West Bank Are a Political Issue, Not a Legal One

November 25, 2019 | Douglas Feith
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Critics of the State Department’s determination that Israeli settlements in land acquired during the Six-Day War are not illegal have objected on three distinct grounds: that it constitutes a radical break with 40 years of U.S. foreign-policy consensus, that it misinterprets the law, and that it makes peace less likely. All these objections are wrong, explains Douglas Feith. To the first objection, he notes that in 1981 Ronald Reagan reversed the Carter administration’s position that the settlements were illegal; it was the Obama administration that broke with 35 years of precedent when it tacitly reverted to Carter’s position in 2016. As for the others, Feith writes:

[The Carter administration’s argument] ignored entirely the rights of Jews under the 1922 Palestine Mandate, which called for “close settlement by Jews on the land.” How could those rights have been extinguished by Jordan’s unlawful attack on Israel in 1948 or by Jordan’s . . . West Bank annexation in April 1950, which the United States never recognized? [Even Carter’s advisers] admitted that Jordan was not the legitimate sovereign of the West Bank between 1949 and 1967.

Carter held the conventional view that the Arab-Israeli conflict is in some essential way about the settlements. Trump-administration officials see it differently. Their view evidently is that the conflict reflects the hopes of Israel’s enemies that they can weaken the Jewish state, separate it from its U.S. ally, and ultimately destroy it. What fuels the conflict is the notion that Israel is a vulnerable, alien presence that lacks roots, legitimacy, and moral confidence.

For years, anti-Israel propaganda concentrated so intensely on attacking the settlements as illegal because that line of argument was deeper than a criticism of policy: it called Israel’s legitimacy into question. As Israel’s chief enemies know, asserting that the Jews have no right to live in the West Bank—an important part of the ancient Jewish homeland—calls into question the Jews’ right to have created Israel in the first place.

By moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and declaring the West Bank settlements legal, Trump administration officials are strengthening U.S. ties to Israel. They are systematically contradicting those who argue that Israel can be isolated and destroyed. In the despair of the eliminationists is the best hope for a negotiated peace.

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