Nick Clegg's condemnation of Israel's settlements as "an act of deliberate vandalism" was the understatement of the week, but it still managed to provoke the wrath of the Israeli establishment. The country's Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, claimed during a visit to London that Clegg's remarks were not only untrue but also unfortunate, damaging and irresponsible.
The Deputy Prime Minister may have broken the "unwritten rules of the diplomatic game", as the Daily Telegraph alluded, but he was only stating the obvious. The International Court of Justice ruled in July 2004 that, "Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and an obstacle to peace and to economic and social development [… and] have been established in breach of international law."
Israel has no right to settle its citizens in the occupied land or displace the Palestinians from their land. Article 49, paragraph 6 of the Fourth Geneva Convention stipulates explicitly that "the occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies".
Any attempt to dismiss Clegg's view as "personal" is misguided. In reality, he was only articulating a consensual position that is fast gaining ground across Europe. Proof of this official indignation was highlighted in the EU Heads of Mission Report on East Jerusalem, which called on the European commission to consider legislation "to prevent/discourage financial transactions in support of settlement activity".
While this recommendation is welcome, it is clearly not enough. The scourge of Israeli settler colonisation has become so pervasive that it warrants punitive legal action against those individuals, companies and institutions which raise funds within the EU for the settlements. A heavy fine, seizure of assets and imprisonment would be fitting corrective measures. In other words, the same standards that apply to companies which breach European rules on Syria or Iran should also apply to Israel. As long as the funders and beneficiaries feel immune from prosecution and censure, however, it will be business as usual.
If the EU report remains mere words on paper they will be dismissed by Israeli officials with their customary disdain. Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, has already shrugged-off the report as "an unpleasant background noise".
That said, settler colonialism is a throwback to ages past; thankfully, it is now contrary to European values. Moreover, nowhere in 21st century Europe do civilians walk into other people's homes and throw them out on to the streets. Even if they don't pay their rent and are indebted, they are never evicted from their homes without due process. In the Israeli-occupied territories, Palestinians are thrown out of their homes routinely, especially in Jerusalem. Their possessions are usually seized and they are forced to live in makeshift shelters and tents; even finding space to pitch a tent is very difficult.
Can anyone in Britain set up a home on Crown property without the necessary permission or authorisation? It simply does not happen. The right to private property and respect for the law are basic values needed to preserve the fabric of a democratic society. Israel's disregard for these values has fuelled the conflict in Palestine and exposed its divergence from internationally-acceptable norms of conduct. It also exposes the myth of Israeli democracy.
Europeans do not need to scratch deep beneath the surface to find the evidence. The fact that Israel's Foreign Minister lives in a settlement (Nokdim) in occupied Palestinian territory, is an affront to international law and human decency. But then, we can expect little else from an individual who is facing charges of money laundering, fraud and breach of trust; and who has made so many appalling comments about Palestinians and Arabs that he has been called a "racist and a fascist" by a fellow Knesset member. Such a person would not hold public office, let alone a cabinet position, in Britain. Indeed, his conviction for assaulting a child would have been enough to disqualify him.
Nick Clegg's condemnation of the settlement is, therefore, morally and legally justified. Far from being the personal view of a maverick it reflects a calculated concern about a policy that jeopardises British interests and ability to play any meaningful role on the transformation of the region towards peace and stability. Now that he has broken the "unwritten rules of the diplomatic game", it remains to be seen whether his coalition partners will rally behind him in the national interest. As for the Israelis, they will continue to protest and fail miserably to conceal the fact that at the core of their protestations is a desire to preserve their privileged position as state actors above the law. Some call it Israeli exceptionalism. We prefer plain illegality.