To jazz soundtrack, Israeli official insists settlements are legal

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon offers a whimsical take on the Arab-Israeli conflict in a slick new video. His conclusion? Israeli West Bank settlements are legal and there is no occupation.

By , Staff writer

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    In this Sept. 21, 2010 file photo, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon speaks during an interview at United Nations headquarters.

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Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister from the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party, has kicked up an Internet storm with a slickly produced video that argues Israel is within its rights to hold on to the West Bank in perpetuity.

Accompanied by a bouncy jazz soundtrack, Mr. Ayalon – a former ambassador to the US – stands in front of a simple white background while he makes his case in avuncular tones, illustrated by cartoons behind him. For instance, a sheesha-smoking character in a fez is run over by a tank to illustrate the Ottoman Turkish defeat in World War I.

To my eyes, the video – released July 19 – will probably be effective in making Ayalon's case to the only casually interested or people already predisposed to thinking Israel's possession of the West Bank is proper. But it is infuriating Palestinian negotiators, who are taking it as evidence of bad faith and the near impossibility of negotiated progress on a two-state solution with the current Israeli government.

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It's also evidence of how mainstream the settlement movement has become in Israeli politics. Ayalon's video largely mirrors that of an earlier video for the Yesha Council, the main lobbying voice for the settlers, and was directed by the same man. Jeffrey Goldberg, a self-described Zionist at The Atlantic, summarizes Ayalon's point as "the West Bank belongs to Israel now and forever" and writes that "The Israeli Foreign Ministry is now part of the settlement movement."

To be sure Ayalon, an energetic Twitter user, appears to have taken issue with that characterization on his feed in a lively debate between him and Mr. Goldberg. When Goldberg writes "Your entire project is designed to legitimize Israel's hold over the territories forever," Ayalon responds: "I ask you again. where in the video is this stated, even implicitly."

The video is at the bottom of this post, so watch it and judge its intent for yourself. In my judgment, Goldberg certainly has a point, and the overall thrust of the presentation appears to be making the case that Israel should not give up any more land.

Ayalon argues that the territory seized at the time "are not 'occupied territories' but rather 'disputed territories,'" since there was no clear sovereign power at the time, and certainly no legal state of Palestine.

This choice of the word "dispute" is about far more than semantics. Under international law, territory seized in war is generally considered "occupied" and annexing such land as the spoils of war is illegal. But in some instances, as in the case, of Western Sahara, land can be considered "disputed," with no clear owner and no clear legal answers about what's to be done next. Ayalon is, in effect, seeking to downgrade the West Bank to this status, which would make it much easier to keep all or part of the West Bank in perpetuity from a legal standpoint.

To build his case, Ayalon mentions early on that "half of 1 percent of the Middle East" was set aside to be the Jewish homeland before World War II.

This argument is frequently advanced, in service of saying that the "Arabs" are incapable of reasonable compromise ("they want the last 0.5 percent"). But Arabs aren't an undifferentiated mass, either politically or culturally. The problem is the Palestinians who were living in the area both when the state of Israel was declared, and in 1967, and today. The Palestinians are the folks who've been dispossessed, no matter how much land the Saudis or Egyptians have.

Ayalon appears to suggest that the international community originally envisioned an Israeli state 75 percent larger that its current size. He asserts, referring back to interwar League of Nations documents, that the Jewish homeland was meant to occupy the East Bank of the Jordan River, which is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

It's true that Britain's Lord Balfour in 1917 expressed his country's support for a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, "it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine." But he didn't specify how big it would be.

After World War I, Britain administered Palestine as a single unit from 1920-22. In 1922, it received permission from the League of Nations to split off the area east of the Jordan river as Transjordan, giving partial autonomy to Hashemite Emir Abdullah I to run a territory that would become the fully independent country of Jordan in 1946.

"I guess you cannot say the Jewish people have accepted some painful compromises already," he says in reasoned tones, about the creation of Jordan. "Anyway, the League of Nations' recognition of a Jewish homeland – which includes the West Bank – was reaffirmed by the United Nations after the second World War," Ayalon says, as a cartoonish UN "seal of approval" is stamped on a map of the West Bank behind him.

But it's not entirely clear what point Ayalon is making here.

The 1947 UN partition plan for historic Palestine envisaged two states, one Jewish, one Arab, with Jerusalem and some of the holy sites nearby administered internationally in recognition of their importance to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. The map for the Jewish and Arab states drawn up then (a copy of which is posted on the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website), shows an internationally administered Jerusalem and most of the West Bank in Palestinian hands.

Ayalon's own presentation ends up showing the same map moments later, and he appears to acknowledge that the UN envisioned an Arab state encompassing the West Bank – a larger Arab state than the Palestinians are negotiating for today. As he continues, a cartoon representation of an Israeli negotiator ready to shake hands on a deal for the two states in 1947 is greeted by a Palestinian in a kefaya who points a rifle at him – setting the stage for the first Arab-Israeli war after Palestinians rejected the UN partition plan. The armistice lines drawn at the end of that war, ended up with a bigger Israel than the UN originally envisioned and set the borders generally referred to today as the 1967 borders (since Israel's territorial control expanded again after that year's war with the Arabs).

Goldberg dismisses Ayalon's line of reasoning as missing the key issue. He argues that "the salient point about the West Bank might not be who the "legal sovereign" was 44 years ago, but that actual people of another ethnic group live on the West Bank and don't want to be ruled – "occupied" would be another word for "ruled" – by a foreign power. To most of the world, at least (and to many, many Israelis and a clear majority of American Jews) this is what matters."

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