07/31/2012 12:12 EDT | Updated 09/30/2012 05:12 EDT

The Unsettling New Settlement News

The settlements may have just gone too far. It's time for North America's Jewish communities to finally realize what a toll the settlements are taking on Israel's moral, legal and practical realities and the extent to which they threaten a just peace and two-state solution between Israel/Palestine.


It only took one sentence to undo international law, conventional wisdom and the basis for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians: "Israelis have the legal right to settle in Judea and Samaria and the establishment of settlements cannot, in and of itself, be considered illegal." Thus spoke the Levy Report, a three-person report commissioned by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and chaired by a former Israeli Supreme Court judge.

It turns out, for 45 years everyone has been wrong -- well, almost everyone.

The right is elated and vindicated. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called it "an important step." Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan said a "legal and historic justice has been done." And Arieh Eldad, a right-wing member of Israel's Knesset said the Levy Report will help end "Muslim Occupation of the Land of Israel that began 1300 years ago."

Moving left, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel called the report's findings "legally unfounded" and noted they "authorize a regime of institutionalized discrimination." The director of Israeli NGO Peace Now has said the report's conclusions, if adopted, would be so detrimental to Israel's standing in the world that Prime Minister Netanyahu could never follow it.

The disagreement spurred by the Levy Report is nothing new. In fact, a similar report commissioned by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005 concluded the opposite.

What is new this time is the reaction it has brought about. An emboldened Israeli right might actually be pushing the envelope too far and awakening a sleeping giant.

Responding to the Levy Report, 41 American-Jewish leaders under the auspices of the Israel Policy Forum wrote to Prime Minister Netanyahu to remind him that "Securing Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state requires diplomatic and political leadership, not legal maneuverings." They ended by saying they hoped Netanyahu would "ensure that adoption of this report does not take place."

The letter was signed by leaders of numerous Jewish Federations all over the country, including influential philanthropist and Birthright Israel co-founder Charles Bronfman, Michael Berenbaum, the former Project Director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Thomas A. Dine, the former Executive Director of the powerful pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC.

This is good. Finally, a long, overdue conversation might be beginning. It is time for North America's Jewish communities to finally realize what a toll the settlements are taking on Israel's moral, legal and practical realities and what the settler movement is out to achieve and the extent to which they threaten a just peace and two-state solution between Israel/Palestine.

Writing in the New York Times after the Levy Report, Dani Dayan, head of the settler council Yesha, laid everything out. Calling Israel's right to the West Bank "unassailable", Dayan proceeds to label settlers as "ideologically motivated" and unveils the truth: "We aim to expand the existing Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], and create new ones." He ends by calling for an end to the two-state solution and instead suggests improving and maintaining "the current reality on the ground."

For now, Dayan is winning. The government of Prime Minister Netanyahu, unable to effectively challenge the settler's power (assuming he even wants to), continuously defies court orders to dismantle settler outposts deemed illegal by Israel's High Court of Justice.

However, as settlers continue to grow bolder, more and more Diaspora Jews that were silent in the past will not remain so. When faced with a choice between supporting radical zealots fuelled by Biblical prophecy on one side, or a belief that one can find a way to blend principle, dignity, justice and compassion on the other side, the choice is simple, as demonstrated by those leaders who signed the Israel Policy Forum's letter.

It was in 2002 when George W. Bush unveiled his roadmap for peace that was to lead to a Palestinian state in 2005. Over the past 10 years, notwithstanding other factors, missteps and blunders, Israel's settler community has made that realization infinitely more difficult and less plausible.

And while their continued expansion comes at the expense of Palestinian dignity and norms of international law, it might just be that this expansion and entrenchment of their interests finally goes too far.

When traditional supporters of Israel contrast the settler's vision of Israel's future, which will likely lead to a perpetual state of antagonized conflict, with what they hope for Israel's future, namely peaceful co-existence and mutual respect for human dignity, the carte-blanche support that the settlements often receive from mainstream North American Jewish communities might finally begin to be scaled back.

The settlements will have finally unsettled.