international analysis and commentary

Between past and present: Israel’s internal debates


Recently Israel laid claim to nearly a thousand acres in the Etzion settlement bloc near Bethlehem. The area has been designated “state land” by the military-run civil administration (the new settlement of Givat Hamatos,[1] between Gilo and Bethlehem, will possibly be established within this area). In the same days a report released by the Yesha Council of Settlements revealed that 7,500 Israelis had moved into the Palestinian territories in the previous six months. The number of settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has now reached 382,031.

The state-funded project of colonization that brought most of the settlers into the Palestinian territories is the subject of a long-standing debate among Israelis. This debate can however easily mislead external observers. Indeed, each camp tends to keep the discussion on these topics within its sub-community. For instance, settlers do not talk much to “regular Israelis”, while “regular Israelis” rarely deal with “peace people”. As noted by the late Director of MidEastWeb for Coexistence, Ami Isseroff, many societies in the region are not pluralistic, “they are segmented. Israeli and Palestinian societies are not exceptions”.

But while the internal debate within the Israeli peace camp remains largely static and ineffective, the discourse within the sector that we might term the left-wing anti-establishment peace camp is becoming more intense and articulated. Atalia Omer’s When Peace is not Enough (Chicago University Press, 2013) represents a sort of manifesto of this “old-new phenomenon”. The main thesis of the author, and of a growing number of left-wing voters, is that the Zionist peace groups such as Peace Now reinforce and reproduce Zionist historiography. According to Omer, the two-state formula embraced by the traditional Israeli peace camp prioritizes the particular Zionist imperative to maintain a Jewish demographic majority in Israel, while fostering the homogenizing interpretation of Jewish identity.

Noam Sheizaf went a step further. In a recent article published on +972 the Tel Aviv–based journalist denounced the longstanding and counterproductive debate between the supporters of the “one- or two-state” solution, suggesting the need to replace the peace process with a civil rights struggle that, besides opening the door for Arab-Jewish cooperation on both sides of the Green Line, could fully expose the unique status “of real people under occupation”. “There are no other nations,” noted Sheizaf, “stuck in this kind of limbo, without citizenship and without a state, like the Palestinians. And there are certainly no other nations that would tolerate it.”

However, and despite echoing growing concerns, the left-wing anti-establishment peace camp, like the mainstream Israeli peace camp, mirrors the perceptions of a tiny minority of the Israeli population.

Conversely, the right-wing pro-settlements camp is registering both a fast increase in the number of supporters and a lively debate. This is the result of several factors, with one being particularly pivotal: the vast “pedagogic campaign” promoted in recent years by the Israeli establishment with the aim to provide a legal and historical justification for the settlements and, more generally, for the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

In this respect, the Levy Report – released on 9 July 2012 by a special committee appointed in late January 2012 by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – represented a sort of “watershed”. The report reaffirmed, in a new guise and for a much wider public, the interpretations already partly developed two decades earlier by Eugene Rostow, former Dean of Yale Law School. Rostow had pointed out that Israel’s presence in the West Bank is not an “occupation” and recognized the full legal legitimacy of the settlements in “Judea and Samaria”.

Rostow’s argument, which is repeated in the Levy report, is that although the League of Nations had ceased to exist, the commitments of the League of Nations remained binding. According to an interpretation held by a growing number of scholars and by most Israeli right-wing parties, the preamble as well as Article 2 of the Mandate secured the establishment of the Jewish National Home on “the whole country of Palestine, not a mere part”.

These arguments are still so relevant to the present day that the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, together with the Columbia Law School, will host in June 2015 a two-day international conference entitled “The Past, Present, and Future of the Palestine Mandate in International Law”.

Notwithstanding its relevance, the “Levy Report’s attitude”, mirrored today in an impressive number of academic and journalistic publications, is based on a selective use of the millenarian history of the region, as well as on a problematic interpretation of international law.[2]

If settlers and their supporters should be entitled to see their actions justified ipso facto because the “territory intended for the Palestinian state was the ‘formative territory’ of the Jewish people”, then the same consistent approach must be applied to the entire history of the region. Using the “formative territory” logic consistently would mean that Israel should return the coast between Ashdod and Ashkelon, which has never been part of any ancient Israelite kingdom. The numerous archaeological expeditions carried out over decades in Ashkelon have confirmed that it was never conquered by the ancient Israelites. And even if one assumes that there was a conquest, the occupation of an area for a few years does not mean that it represented part of a larger “historic Jewish homeland”. Otherwise, the many Philistine raids and sometimes occupations of Israelite towns as far east as the Jordan River valley would also make these areas “less Israelite”.

But it is perhaps the exploitation of some deep-rooted legal aspects that is strengthening the right-wing pro-settlements camp. Indeed, the British White Paper of June 1922 – the first document that officially clarified the interpretation of the Mandate’s text – pointed out that the Balfour Declaration does “not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded ‘in Palestine’”. Zionist consent to such interpretation was requested, and received, before the Mandate was confirmed in July 1922. In the words of Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann: “It was made clear to us that confirmation of the Mandate would be conditional on our acceptance of the policy as interpreted in the White Paper [of 1922], and my colleagues and I therefore had to accept it, which we did, though not without some qualms”.

On top of this, the term “national home” had no mutually agreed upon meaning or scope and the British government was under no definite obligation, since the Mandate made any Jewish immigration subject to “suitable conditions” and contained safeguards for the rights and position of the non-Jewish communities.

In order to avoid a further growth of the right-wing pro-settlements camp the priority is to dismantle – first of all from an educational and cultural point of view – the annexation process that is (mis)using history and international law to justify the reality on the ground. The alternative to the fulfillment of international consensus is a more closed, militarized country, whose policies of colonization will continue to strengthen the Palestinian extremist fringes, to tear apart a relevant percentage of the Palestinian people and to increase Israel’s isolation from the rest of the international community. “Peace cannot be kept by force,” as Albert Einstein pointed out in a speech delivered in 1930 to the New History Society, “it can only be achieved by understanding.”


[1] On September 1, Walla!, a popular Israeli portal, published an article in Hebrew detailing how the abduction and murder of the three Israeli teens last June served as a justification for the publication of tenders for the construction of 1500 new units in Givat Hamatos. See:

[2] For more legal details see Opinion Juris, January 9, 2014: