Veteran reader David Sigeti wonders if I'd like to comment on this article, in which former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer writes about the illegality of the West Bank settlements. Kurtzer's thesis is that much of the settlement activity is illegal - and has been throughout - even by the standards of Israel's legal system.
It's an interesting read, mostly for the quick and truncated glimpse it gives us behind the scenes of the American-Israeli relationship; on one level, the American ambassador has routine access to top-level Israeli officials to a degree unmatched by most regular Israeli citizens. (There's also an amusing anecdote, when Kurtzer and some Israelis are trying to agree on where the settlements end, and Kurtzer has relevant secret American intelligence data he's not able to share with the Israelis: because it came from satellites? From Palestinian farmers? From American moles in Israel's officialdom? He doesn't say, alas).
The most interesting thing I come away from the article with is how fiendishly complex the matter really is, with almost no ability to reach agreements about the simplest facts of almost any part of the story. What is the legal case? Who owns which land? How does anyone know? When is a legal document "right", if at all, ever? If an attorney states a legal position, how do you decide if it's law, or politics, or both, or neither?
For a number of years I've been idly telling myself that once Israel leaves the West Bank, I'd like to write a book about the settlement project and Israeli society. The book can't be a book of history until after the story is over, of course, which is one reason I never started working on it; Kurtzer's article indicates that long before writing about the project and Israeli society, it will first be necessary to figure out what the project was. The simple facts. Because something like 90% of what people think they know to be facts, are actually little more than ideologically-driven hearsay.
Take the fundamental question: who owns the land. I don't know the answer, which in any case would differ according to whichever plot of it you're standing on. I do know, however, that contrary to everything the media ever tells you, most of the West Bank is barren hill-sides or dessert, and has been forever. It's not fertile farmland, not olive groves nor vineyards, and certainly not towns and villages. Thorny hillsides, dry and dusty ravines. Before you determine who owns pieces of it, you're going to have to figure out how they may have come to claim that ownership.
Back to Kurtzer's thesis, however: I expect he's roughly right. Much of the settlement project happened in murky gray zones on the edge of legality, some of it on the outside parts of it. This is not the reason the settlements need eventually to be disbanded, most of them: that's a matter of politics. As regular readers will recognize, I'm of the opinion that in matters of international relations politics, power relations and national interests generally trump legality. When they don't, it's often because the power brokers managed to have the law written to fit their purposes. Sorry if that makes me sound like a cynic.