Crossing a ‘red line’ on the West Bank

Israeli soldiers clashed with Palestinian and Israeli activists during a demonstration in November against construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Majdi Mohammed AP
Israeli soldiers clashed with Palestinian and Israeli activists during a demonstration in November against construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Majdi Mohammed AP

For years I have been warning that the ongoing Jewish settlement in the predominantly Arab West Bank will lead to one, bi-national state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, where Jews might eventually become a minority. In that case, Israel might either lose its Jewish character or its democracy.

In theory, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his speech in 2009 at Bar Ilan University, seemed to have recognized that, when he said that he endorsed a two-state solution. Except that the current Israeli government under his leadership, pressed by the ultra-right wings of his coalition, is leading us in the opposite direction.

While I oppose these policies, I recognize the right of a duly elected government to pursue them. I never thought I’d subscribe to a mood of “Not my President,” which surfaced among some Americans who couldn’t swallow the victory of Donald Trump.

Yet this week, for the first time, I had second thoughts. On Monday, my House of Representatives, the Knesset, passed the first reading of a law that will legalize Jewish settlements built on privately owned Palestinian land. This, to me, is crossing a red line.

The legal status of Israeli settlements in the West Bank has been debated extensively over the last five decades since the Six-Day War. Opponents lean on the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) regarding military occupation of a territory: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Supporters of settlements on the other hand, argue that the treaty, established after the horrors of World War II, barely carries any relevance to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

This way or another, all Israeli governments from 1967 on tried not to take private Arab land in the West Bank, except for security reasons. In 1979, the Israeli Supreme Court didn’t accept the arguments of the IDF that the expropriation of Arab private land near Nablus to build the Elon Moreh settlement had been based on security reasons, and ruled that the land be returned to its owners. Menachem Begin, then-prime minister and a proponent of Greater Israel, bowed to the decision of the court.

Which reminds me that in the 18th Century, when Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, built his rococo “Sanssouci” Palace in Potsdam, Berlin, a windmill stood in his way. He offered to buy the mill but the owner refused, to which Frederick supposedly threatened: “Does he not know that I can take the mill away from him by virtue of my royal power without paying one groschen for it?” Whereupon the miller is supposed to have replied: “Of course, your majesty, your majesty could easily do that, if — begging your pardon – it were not for the Supreme Court in Berlin.”

Indeed, since Israel doesn’t have a constitution, the Supreme Court remains the last protector of civil and human rights. Except that the Supreme Court has been under continuous attacks, for presumably interfering in the affairs of the executive branch. And this week’s law, which is aimed at legalizing the acquisition of private Arab land for Jewish settlements, will further weaken the Supreme Court’s resilience to obstruct such moves.

But with or without a constitution, the Bible warns us Jews to treat the Stranger (Ger, in Hebrew) fairly, because we were ourselves strangers in the Land of Egypt. Those Israelis who went to the West Bank (Judea and Samaria in our Jewish heritage) out of religious motivation, to implement God’s promise to give the land of Israel to Abraham and his descendants, should be the first to know. So should Evangelical Christians who support Israel, who can surely cite the warnings of the prophets to the Israelites not to oppress the Stranger: “Do no wrong, do no violence to the stranger” (Jeremiah 22, 3).

And it was the Zionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky, the mentor of Menachem Begin, who advocated 80 years ago that in the future Jewish state, Arabs will enjoy the same rights as Jews. This is definitely not what the new law implies, and no wonder that Knesset Member Benny Begin, who — like his father Menachem believes that Jews have the right to settle in the West Bank — refused to vote for this “very bad law,” in his words.

In his own Likkud party, which once prided itself as being true to Jabotinsky’s ideals, Benny Begin is today in a tiny minority. But being in the minority doesn’t necessarily mean that you are wrong.

Uri Dromi is director general of the Jerusalem Press Club, a former spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments and a retired colonel in the Israeli Air Force. He writes a column on Israeli affairs for the Miami Herald.

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