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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

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Legal Forum makes Israel’s case when Israel won’t

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Alan Baker

TORONTO — Israelis have long been known for their “chutzpah,” which loosely translated means being brash, having nerve or being audacious. It fits the stereotype of the modern Israeli as someone brimming with confidence, or even, shall we say, being a little bit pushy.

But the stereotype fails when it comes to standing up for their country when its opponents are hurling invective and denouncing it in the court of public opinion. Too often, those charged with making Israel’s case are apologetic, even defensive, when there is no cause to be apologetic or defensive. At least, that’s the contention of Alan Baker, former Israeli ambassador to Canada and today the head of the international action division of the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel.

Baker was in Toronto and Montreal last week on a seven-day speaking tour that included a presentation at the Shaarei Tefillah synagogue in Toronto.

Israel is facing a propaganda assault as well as a “huge amount of legal threats coming from the international sphere,” Baker told The CJN. “The legal threats versus Israel are not being handled in a positive manner by the government of Israel.

“The concept of hasbarah [explaining, public relations] has become the concept of apologetics,” Baker said. Israel and many Israelis desperately desire to be accepted in the world community and wrongly believe that by not rocking the boat, their position will be enhanced globally. That’s wrong-headed, Baker suggested. Instead, the forum offers a more robust and unabashed case for Israel. “I think we should be more assertive on rights-based diplomacy,” he said.

There are plenty of opportunities for the forum to apply that approach, he continued. Baker outlined several recent manifestations of “lawfare” being waged against the Jewish state that cry out for a response: the proposal to take Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC); United Nations’ reports slamming Israel on settlements and Jerusalem; the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement; and the European Union proposal to require the labelling of products from Israeli settlements.

The Legal Forum, which was founded in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza to promote the rights of evacuees, relies on 350 lawyers, working pro bono, to present Israel’s case. And that includes within Israel itself, which, the forum believes, harbours an “anti-settler bias.”

When the Palestinian Authority approached the United Nations in a bid to upgrade its status to that of a state, the forum presented the secretary general with a brief pointing out that Palestinian efforts to declare a state violated the Oslo agreements. The forum also “explain that the Jews have legal, historic and indigenous rights, long before anyone else,” Baker said.

In addition to indigenous rights – Jews have lived on the land for 3,000 years –modern rights trace back to the Balfour Declaration, the San Remo agreement, the Mandate given the British by the League of Nations to hold the land in trust for the Jews, and the ratification by the United Nations of those rights, Baker said. That includes the entire area west of the Jordan River.

“What we said is that Israel has the right to build settlements in Judea and Samaria,” that the territories are not “occupied,” but belong to Israel as of right.

Baker, a member of the Levy Committee, which reported last year on Israel’s legal claim to the West Bank, said negotiations with the Palestinians could lead to Israel ceding territories, but those would be, in a legal sense, Israeli lands being relinquished.

The forum has responded to a report by the UN Human Rights Council, which studied the effect of Israeli settlements on Palestinians and declared that Israeli political leaders could be tried as war criminals in the ICC.

The forum disseminated its critique of the council’s findings to media outlets and other NGOs, as well as the Israeli diplomatic mission in Geneva. The critique pointed out that the report was not just wrong, but virulently and deliberately misleading,” Baker said.

It’s important “that the last word won’t be from that [UN] commission,” Baker said.

The forum has also countered calls by supporters of BDS for a boycott of Israel by pointing out that not only is that illegal – the Palestinians agreed in Oslo there would be no boycotts – but “it [also] encourages Palestinians to retain an uncompromising position. Basically, you’re telling the Palestinians, ‘You don’t need to negotiate. You’ll get what you want.’”

Going forward, the forum is hoping to convince western governments to reconsider funding UNRWA, the agency that serves Palestinian refugees and their descendants. UNRWA, which runs the education system in refugee camps, “is involved in anti-Israel agitation,” including the glorification of suicide bombers and incitement against Israel, Baker said. “We think this money is being abused.”

The forum is also going to tackle another UN agency, this time, UNCTAD, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, which issued a report claiming the east Jerusalem economy was being stifled by Israel.

“The east Jerusalem economy is going through one of the most prosperous times it’s ever had,” Baker said.

Israeli officials believe the report will end up in the garbage bin of history, Baker said.

“Maybe,” he added, “but we have to get in the last word. We can’t allow the slander and delegitimization of Israel without getting in our last word.”

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