Diplomats from some 70 countries gathered in Paris over the weekend to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and once more depict Israeli settlements as a grave violation of international law. The conference was a failure, but the conferees could have helped themselves by first checking what French courts have to say about those settlements before scoring Israel again.
In 2013 the French Court of Appeals in Versailles ruled that, contrary to Palestinian arguments, Jewish settlements don’t violate the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition against an occupying power transferring “its civilian population into the territory it occupies.” The law, the court held, bars government efforts to transfer populations. But it doesn’t bar private individuals settling in the disputed territories.
The case arose after Palestinian groups sued the French industrial conglomerate Alstom over its role in the construction of a light-rail line in Jerusalem. The Palestinians lost in the court of first instance, and the Versailles court upheld the lower court’s judgment. The case didn’t go further.
That matters because the Paris conference adopted the premise that settlements are illegal as a matter of settled law and the primary obstacle to peace. The French court makes a nonsense of that judgment simply by looking at what the Geneva Conventions say, rather than basing its judgment on a legally meaningless “international consensus.”
As with so many of the Obama Administration’s Middle East peace efforts, the Paris conference makes untenable territorial demands on Israel and gives Palestinians the hope that they can achieve their aims without making compromises. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the conference as “useless,” while the U.K. refused to accept its closing declaration calling for a final-status agreement that would “fully end the occupation that began in 1967.”
The reality is that Israel will never return to those borders, and no Palestinian state is going to come into existence so long as it is run by kleptocrats in the West Bank and jihadists in Gaza. The next time a similar conference is organized, it would do better to address Palestinian capacity for responsible self-government rather than offer legally dubious claims against Israeli settlements.