The Levy Report: A Chance to Regain Lost Diplomatic Ground

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

When a blue-ribbon panel of Israeli legal experts issued a report this July declaring that the West Bank isn’t “occupied territory,” but territory to which Israel has a legitimate claim, and that settlements therefore cannot be considered ipso facto illegal, it raised an outcry both in Israel and overseas. A group of prominent American Jews even wrote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to urge him against adopting the report, arguing that it would imperil both “the two-state solution, and the prestige of Israel as a democratic member of the international community,” because the latter depends on persuading the world that Israel is “committed to a two-state vision.” Many Israeli pundits voiced similar concerns.

Since the Levy Report essentially reiterates the official position of all Israeli governments, this concern seems strange. Nevertheless, its opponents are right to see it as a potential game changer. Where they err is in deeming it a negative one. In reality, the report offers Israel a golden opportunity to start regaining the diplomatic ground it has lost over the last two decades.

No honest appraisal could deny that Israel’s international standing has deteriorated since it signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. Anti-Israel boycotts, once confined to the Arab world, are now routine agenda items for universities, certain Western churches, and trade unions. Courts in several European countries have considered indicting Israeli officials for war crimes, and European polls routinely deem Israel a prime threat to world peace. References to Israel as an “apartheid state” have become commonplace, and academics and journalists openly question its very right to exist. All this would have been inconceivable 20 years ago.

This deterioration has many causes, but one is directly germane to the Levy Report: Though officially, Israel still insists on the validity of its claim to the West Bank, post-Oslo Israeli leaders have generally downplayed this claim. Instead, they have touted the Palestinians‘ “legitimate and political rights” to the territory, at times even adopting the Palestinian rhetoric of “occupation.”

Their goal was well-intentioned: to show that Israel was indeed “committed to a two-state vision,” thereby creating an atmosphere conducive to peace. But once Israel stopped asserting its own rights in the West Bank, there was nobody to counter the Palestinian claim that it is “occupied Palestinian land” to which Israel has no rights whatsoever. Consequently, the unchallenged international narrative now views Israel not as a magnanimous peace-maker willing to cede territory for peace, but as an unrepentant thief who stole land and refuses to return it.

This has devastating consequences. If Israel has a valid claim to the land, it’s obviously entitled to refuse to withdraw completely to the 1967 lines, or to condition withdrawal on various security requirements. But if this is stolen Palestinian land, Israel has no right to keep any of it, or even to set conditions for its return. Nor does it deserve international acclaim for making “painful territorial concessions”: Returning stolen land isn’t a generous gesture, as ceding one’s own territory would be, but an obligatory restitution that barely begins to atone for the suffering caused by the original theft.

Since a valid Israeli claim doesn’t preclude ceding all or part of the territory for peace, the Levy Report in no way endangers the two-state solution. But unless Israel convinces the world that it has a valid claim, it will always be viewed as a reviled thief rather than a peace-seeker willing to make “painful concessions” for peace.

Downplaying this claim in order to prove Israel’s “commitment to a two-state vision” would thus be counterproductive. And in fact, 25 years of Gallup polling support this thesis.

In Gallup’s annual survey of whether Americans sympathize more with Israel or the Palestinians, the proportion voicing pro-Israel sympathies tumbled from a Gulf War high of 64 percent in 1991 (despite Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s opposition to territorial concessions) to around 40 percent under Oslo signatory Yitzhak Rabin. It remained in those doldrums throughout the seven years after Oslo, during which four more Israeli-Palestinian agreements were signed, then began climbing after the second intifada erupted in 2000. But only in the last three years did it finally surpass 60 percent again, despite a freeze in Israeli-Palestinian talks that many world leaders and media pundits (unjustly) blamed mainly on Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Moreover, during Oslo’s heyday (1993-2000), pro-Israel sympathizers were almost always outnumbered by people who had no opinion or sympathized equally with both sides or not with either side. In contrast, pro-Israel sympathizers generally surpassed the “both/neither/no opinion” category before and after that period. And they did so by the widest margin over the last three years.

If Israel’s image really depended on belief in its “commitment to a two-state vision,” the results should have been the opposite: Support for Israel should have peaked under Rabin (1993-95), or Camp David summiteer Ehud Barak (1999-2001), rather than Shamir and Netanyahu – two premiers who (at least rhetorically) emphasized Israeli rather than Palestinian rights. Thus, forfeiting a chance to prove that Israel isn’t a thief just to bolster this belief would be foolish.

And the Levy Report provides such a chance. Precisely because much of the world now deems the West Bank “occupied Palestinian territory,” adopting a report that clashes head-on with this accepted wisdom would force the government to repeatedly and publicly explain why it’s false: that this land was earmarked for a Jewish state by the 1922 League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, later affirmed in the UN Charter’s Article 80; that the 1947 UN Partition Plan was nonbinding, as all General Assembly resolutions are, and thus became null and void once the Arabs rejected it; that all sides agreed the 1949 armistice lines weren’t permanent borders; that the world never recognized Jordan’s occupation of the West Bank (1948-67), so the territory had no recognized sovereign when Israel captured it in a defensive war 1967; and that UN Security Council Resolution 242 subsequently recognized Israel’s right to retain some of the captured territory.

For regardless of whether Israel ultimately keeps or cedes this territory, this is the case it must make if it is ever to persuade the world that it is a peace-seeker rather than a thief.

Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary. For more information on the JINSA Fellowship program, click here.