The former senior state legal official who prepared a landmark report for prime minister Ariel Sharon on unauthorized building in the West Bank has accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of destroying Israel’s democratic and Jewish future by undertaking massive and indiscriminate settlement expansion designed to prevent Palestinian statehood.
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Talia Sasson, who wrote the 2005 legal overview on West Bank outposts for Sharon, described Netanyahu’s stated vision of a Palestinian state as “meaningless” and “empty words.”
“If you have a vision of Palestinian statehood,” she said, “you don’t take control of the territory in this way.” She drew particular attention to the government’s readiness to establish a new settlement in place of Migron — “a regression” that would constitute the first officially authorized settlement since the start of the 1990s. In terms of overall settlement building policy, she said, “Everything bad that could be happening is happening.”
After submitting her report to Sharon, Sasson served briefly as an adviser to him on its implementation. She has subsequently been involved with the New Israel Fund and the Geneva Initiative, and ran unsuccessfully on the Meretz list in the 2009 elections.
As a senior lawyer in the State Attorney’s office until 2004, Sasson accrued years of expertise on Israeli policy in the territories, heading a team that dealt with the application of law on Israelis there, representing the IDF in the Supreme Court, and handling issues relating to the security barrier, bypass roads and settlement security. She had just retired when she was asked by Sharon to prepare a legal overview of building in the territories, and the result was a much-discussed report that detailed how various government departments had provided resources to establish and maintain dozens of outposts that those same governments acknowledged to be illegal under Israeli law.
“I don’t claim to know what he thinks,” she said of Netanyahu in the interview. “I can only look at what he does. And that’s what scares the hell out of me, because from what he’s doing I see that he wants to enlarge as much as he can – building in the territories indiscriminately. East of the security barrier, inside the settlement blocs, it makes no difference… He talks of two states for two peoples, but apart from that statement, what has he done?”
Sasson added: “He’s destroying the future of the state. He’s finishing the state, at least in the framework it was established. There’ll be a single state from the Jordan to the sea.”
She said she does not know how Sharon might have handled the settlement issue had his health not failed him months after the report was submitted, but that he was “very satisfied with my work.” Initially, in the spring of 2005, “he had to choose between implementing the report or the disengagement from Gaza” and “disengagement from Gaza seemed to him like an easier price to pay… I don’t know what Sharon ultimately had in mind.”
She said that while she believes it would be possible to reach an accommodation with the Palestinian leadership, that isn’t the point when it comes to settlement policy.
Rather, she elaborated, “If you continue to build settlements in the West Bank, you are simply placing the destiny of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people in the hands of the Palestinian people – until they choose to negotiate for peace with us, until they’re prepared for us to withdraw from some of the settlements. No thank you. I don’t want to be dependent on them – not on Arafat, not on Abu Mazen, who I respect, and not on anyone else. My state is not dependent on the Palestinians. It’s the state of Israel of the Jewish people. A democratic state with equal rights for all – you, me, Jewish, Arab.”
Israel’s interest, therefore, she said, is to unilaterally relocate the 100-120,000 settlers who live to the east of the security barrier, while continuing to leave the IDF deployed there to ensure security until an agreement is reached with the Palestinians.
As things stand, she said, the Netanyahu government “is taking the whole ‘bank’ of land in the West Bank and trying to take control of it, with all sorts of plans, with a clear aim: to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. And that’s our disaster, because that eternalizes Israeli control over 2.4 million Palestinians who live in that territory without rights… What kind of democracy is that?”
She said the Palestinian people has “no political rights, no control of the territory in which it lives. The A, B, C of democracy. It doesn’t have it.” In the near future, she said, “this big Israel will continue to behave as it is behaving now.” But one day, she warned, “all those wonderful sanctions that we so encourage against Iran, someone will realize that it’s possible to advance them against Israel. That’s our disaster. Disaster. Disaster.”
Sasson recalled that her family came here from Russia a century ago as young, idealistic pioneers who “dreamed of establishing the Jewish national state here in the land of Israel.” The foundation of Israel was “a miracle for them, a miracle that cost a lot of blood, but a miracle. That was the education that I got. So I define myself as a Zionist.
“But I think that these people who are settling in the West Bank are pulling out the rug from under the state of Israel, in that it won’t be the nation state of the Jewish people. Put together the Arabs of the West Bank, the Arabs in Israel and the Arabs in Gaza, and that’s five and a half million Palestinians, There are fewer than six million Jews. So (unless we separate,) either we lose our Jewish national state or we lose our democracy or, in my opinion, we lose both of them.”
The settlers and their predecessors, “who have pulled the government along for 45 years,” she said, “not one of them can be cleansed of their responsibility. And it’s a heavy responsibility. Building a state is a miracle. It hadn’t happened for 2,000 years… Retaining the state of Israel, the strength of the state, the democracy of the state, that’s the heart of the matter.”
Sasson blamed successive governments of right and left, the IDF and even the Supreme Court for the malaise. “According to international law, the occupying state is allowed to use the territories it has occupied in order to preserve them for the stage of negotiation, when it will have to relinquish them to those they belong to,” she noted. But a “skewed interpretation that was approved by the Supreme Court” allowed that “building a house on territory can be considered temporary use. And not just a house, but a whole settlement. And not just one settlement, but many. This, ostensibly, accords with temporary use. And that’s where our history laughs in our face. Is that temporary use?”
Sasson also argued that, since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli prime ministers have been fearful of meeting the same fate and thus deterred from confronting the West Bank settlement issue. “After you kill a prime minister, all the successors are scared that the same thing will happen to them… A prime minister knows that if he decides to evacuate settlements, he faces the prospect a) of being killed, and b) of civil war within the state, because there will be settlers who will shoot (at the forces who come to evict them),” she said.