On Tuesday, the Knesset revoked a 2005 law forbidding Jews from living in a narrow slice of territory in the northern West Bank. The original law, most of which remains in effect, legitimized Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip as well as the forcible removal of four Israeli villages in Samaria. In response, a State Department spokesman condemned the legislation as inconsistent with prior understandings between the two countries. Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador, went further still, calling it “an egregious violation of a commitment to the United States.” Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu has clarified that his government has “no intention of building new communities in these areas”—a decision that is ultimately the prerogative of the cabinet rather than the parliament.
Whatever the prudence of the Knesset’s decision, Alan Baker and Lenny Ben-David explain that the complaints of Kurtzer and others are misplaced:
The new legislation would enable the return of the residents to their homes and properties after the implementation of requisite legal and security arrangements and the resolution of land ownership claims by Palestinians. The sites of [two of the evacuated towns], Ganim and Kadim, are reported to be now part of Jenin’s municipal boundaries in Area A [of the West Bank], effectively putting them off-limits to Israelis.
U.S. spokespersons and the former ambassador Kurtzer . . . appear to interpret this new legislation in an overly broad manner that does not necessarily reflect the actual substance of, or reasoning for, the legislation. They wrongly claim that the new legislation would facilitate “creating new settlements, building or legalizing outposts, or allowing the building of any kind on private Palestinian land or deep in the West Bank adjacent to Palestinian communities.” As such, they claim that the legislation contradicts previous undertakings by the Israeli government to the United States “to evacuate these settlements and outposts in the northern West Bank in order to stabilize the situation and reduce frictions.”
In fact, the 2004 unilateral and independent Israeli plan to evacuate those villages, even after implementation, failed in its stated purpose to secure and encourage a reduction in Palestinian hostility and violence, nor did it stabilize the political and economic situation as hoped.
Moreover, write Baker and Ben-David, the commitments cited by the Kurtzer and the State Department were made in a 2004 exchange of letters between then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and then-President George W. Bush. As President Obama explicitly rejected these understandings in 2011, Israel can in no way be expected to abide by them.