As a former Israeli ambassador to Canada and an expert in international law, Alan Baker has been involved in the negotiation and drafting of agreements and peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinians.
Last year Baker was thrust into the spotlight when he was appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu to the three-member committee chaired by former justice Edmund Levy to examine the legal aspects of land ownership in the West Bank. That produced the highly publicized Levy Report.
The Jewish Press: Your history is an interesting blend of diaspora and Israeli influences. How has that contributed to your political outlook?
Baker: I’m from a traditional Jewish family in England. As a student I was very much involved in Jewish student organizations and was elected chairman of the Organization of Jewish Students of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That was the time that the New Left came up, during the Six-Day War. There were huge battles on campuses then, and I found myself taking part in debates on Israel’s right to exist, its right to defend itself, and the right of the Jewish community to shechitah, many of the issues that are still around.
Being very much involved in politics and feeling the anti-Semitism among the British people, I decided the place for Jews is in Israel and made aliyah when I was twenty-three. I married an Israeli, got a master’s degree in international law at Hebrew University and went to the army. During the Yom Kippur War I was stranded in an Israeli outpost on the Suez Canal and had to fight my way out. Three of our men were killed. It was a very difficult time. All these things mold your personality.
Has your legal background affected your decision-making regarding Israeli policies?
Strangely enough, I’m not involved in Israeli politics. I’ve always been a civil servant. I’ve worked for virtually every Israeli foreign minister since Moshe Dayan, and the prime ministers. As a legal adviser my job is to give advice, which can either be taken or not. But I never really came out with my own political position.
However, as an Israeli I have three sons who served in the army, and that influences your whole outlook and makes you very conscious of the fact that you must do everything and anything to try to achieve peace. I also served as a military prosecutor in the Gaza Strip at the time Ariel Sharon headed the Southern Command and there was a huge wave of terrorism. And I served as senior legal adviser on issues of international law in the Israeli army headquarters.
I saw the shallowness of politics, the way the Arabs manipulate the international community against Israel by lying and undermining a lot of the accepted norms. You have to find ways of responding to it, which is what I developed over thirty-odd years.
You’ve had ample opportunity to observe the evolution of world opinion toward Israel and the Jewish community at large. Why has it changed over the years?
What has happened over the years is that the Arabs have enhanced their influence in the UN and their capability of neutralizing it, much more so now than twenty years ago. I certainly feel the difference. When you walk along the corridors of the UN and your best friends walk past you and don’t look at you because they’re afraid the Arabs might see them talking to you, it’s not a pleasant feeling. I think it’s clear that there is an element of anti-Semitism and resentment in the international community to the achievements of Israel, to the fact that we are a superpower in the field of high technology. It’s much easier for me to deal with Arabs and Palestinians because they’re up front. They say what they think.
As one of three appointees to the Levy Committee, you concluded in the Levy Report that Israel’s presence in the West Bank is not occupation and that the Israeli settlements are legal under international law. Can you explain how you arrived at that conclusion?
This was nothing new. This has always been Israel’s position, from the day after the entry into the West Bank. Meir Shamgar, who became chief justice and then military advocate general, wrote in 1967-68 that this cannot be considered occupation because we haven’t occupied it from a sovereign country. Jordan was there illegally.
The question was how to fix the issues of Israel’s settlements regarding building and ownership. Over the years the government halted settlement activity and froze the activity of the planning and zoning committees and the statutory laws dealing with giving permits for purchasing and settling. Many people had paid money and started building and found themselves in the middle without approval. So they continued to build and hence their buildings were declared illegal outposts. The illegality wasn’t because they stole land from anybody but because they simply weren’t able to complete the statutory requirements.
The Levy Committee examined the rights that Jews have in the territories and came to the conclusion that we have well-based legal and historical rights, stemming from the Balfour Declaration, the British Mandate and the UN Charter.
We recommended setting up a special court to deal with competing land claims because in many cases an Arab would sell land to Jews and after the Jews would build a settlement, some other Arab would come along and say this is my land. In most cases the Israeli military government or civil administration would accept the Arab’s claims without really questioning them, like in Ulpana and Migron.
There are judgments by Israel’s Supreme Court, by Aharon Barak and others, which said they’d treat the territories as if they were occupied territories. In order to avoid this, we recommended setting up a special court to deal with land issues and freeing up the planning and zoning committees so that they can consider whether a building is in accordance with the law.
Do you feel the report was widely accepted?
No. To a large extent it was hidden because we got into the election process and regrettably Netanyahu was afraid to push it. When we first gave it to him he was overjoyed. He said, “Where have you been? This is the answer.” But somebody must have put pressure on him. What was publicized was the initial determination that the territories aren’t occupied. Hillary Clinton directly opposed it and recommended to Bibi that it should be rejected, without even knowing what was written there.
The UN Human Rights Council recently declared that Israel must immediately withdraw all of its citizens from the “occupied Palestinian territories.” With this rhetoric representative of much of world opinion, can Israel afford to just ignore it?
Of course not. However, such rhetoric is bordering on anti-Semitism, because they’re coming out with expressions like “settlement master plan,” hinting at Nazi terminology, and “OPT – Occupied Palestinian Territories” and “settler violence,” as if settler violence is a different and worse type of violence from others. They’ve decided that the territories are Palestinian, in violation of the Geneva Convention and against the UN’s own determinations that negotiations need to take place.
It’s easy to think we can climb into our own little shell. Ben-Gurion famously referred to the UN as “Um Shmum” and said, “What matters is not what the gentiles will say, but what the Jews will do.” I think the Israeli government is hoping that the Human Rights Council is so discredited as an anti-Israel, anti-Semitic organization that nobody will take its resolutions very seriously. The question is whether we should relate to it in a serious manner because by doing so we might be giving it credibility it doesn’t have, which was my reservation regarding the Goldstone Commission. But our economy is based on involvement in the world economy and we can’t ignore that. In addition, Jewish organizations that go to Geneva have approached me for help.
To that end, you are currently in New York to launch an initiative at the UN, begun by MK Nissim Ze’ev and his assistant Shoshana Beckerman, on the rights of Jews as indigenous people to the Land of Israel. Can you explain this initiative and what you hope to achieve by it?
The UN has recently recognized the rights of indigenous people, who are thereby entitled to enjoy the rights and privileges of such people in their land. This is a very serious claim as to our rights to the territories, because even before the Balfour Declaration the Jewish people can truly claim we were the indigenous people. Jews have lived constantly in the area and we’ve suffered from exiles. No one can deny this. If anyone doubts it, the one question to ask is, “Do you believe in Jesus? Was Jesus a Jew?” Here’s your answer. And so we are preparing a series of documents clarifying our history.
Beyond semantics, what kind of practical implications can arise from this and what hopes are there that the UN will accept such a recommendation?
In a way it’s semantics, but it’s more principle. It’s acknowledgement that the land and territorial rights of Jews have existed from time immemorial and have some protection. So when the UN comes along and adopts resolutions calling upon Israel to leave the territories, we can say no, your resolution is in violation of the UN’s own declaration protecting the rights of indigenous people. This would be the ultimate aim. And we have indications that it will be very difficult for them not to accept it because nobody can claim that we are not an indigenous people.
As a veteran diplomat, what advice can you offer those who try to defend Israel against its detractors?
Go on the attack. Stress our rights. It’s called rights-based diplomacy. Look how the Arabs have succeeded. I take off my hat to them. They’ve succeeded in taking over the UN, in taking the issue of settlements off the negotiating table and pressing it in front of Obama as a precondition. We’ve got to fight it. That’s why I’m against hasbara, which has become a catchword for apology. We should not apologize. We should push our rights; explain that Israel is an economic, high-tech giant. We’ve got so many positive things we’re doing.