TEL AVIV // A report by an Israeli government panel declaring that Israel's presence in the West Bank is not occupation drew condemnation yesterday from the United States, Palestinians and the Israeli left.
The 89-page document, which was commissioned by Benjamin Netanyahu, was headed by a former Supreme Court justice and it attracted attention after appearing to contradict the international community's long-held view that the West Bank was occupied territory and that all settlements there were illegal.
The committee argued that Israel is not a military occupier under international law and that all Israeli outposts should be legalised.
The findings are not legally binding and, according to experts, are unlikely to be formally adopted by the government due to fear of an international diplomatic backlash. Nevertheless, they could still be used by Israel to try legitimise illegal outposts in the Palestinian territory.
Yariv Oppenheimer, the director of the Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now, said: "This is music coming from the political level to the legal level. My fear is that it will lower the justice ministry's motivation to fight illegal Israeli building in the West Bank."
Most of the world views all settlements in the West Bank as violating international law. Israel, however, considers about 120 Jewish communities there as legal while deeming dozens of smaller outposts as unauthorised. According to Mr Oppenheimer, there are currently petitions pending on 15 West Bank outposts whose construction was not authorised by the Israeli government, including five built on private Palestinian land.
Palestinians denounced the report and said it was a blow to peace efforts. Ghassan Khatib, the spokesman for the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, said the report "hurts international efforts to establish a solution based on two states".
The findings also seem to contradict the official position of the Israeli government and its Supreme Court. In legal documents and rulings the Israeli presence in the West Bank was described as "belligerent occupation" - an international legal term referring to a country's military control over a territory that is not its own.
The report, according to Israeli media, has been kept under wraps since being submitted to the premier on June 21 as Mr Netanyahu and his advisers debated how to publicly react to it. According to the reports, the panel had been convened under pressure from government ministers from Mr Netanyahu's Likud party who wanted to cater to the ideology of the Likud's extreme right-wing camp.
"This was Netanyahu's gesture towards the settlers and confirms that these are his views and those of most of his government," said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst.
On Monday, Mr Netanyahu appeared non-committal on the report's findings, saying in a statement that he would bring the document "to be debated by the ministerial committee for settlement affairs on the West Bank and we will decide about it in that forum".
The report has already drawn international ire, with the US - Israel's most powerful ally - condemning it late on Monday. Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the state department, told reporters: "We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity and we oppose any effort to legalise settlement outposts."
The report has also attracted criticism from the Israeli centre and left. Talia Sasson, an attorney, said that Israel would find itself "in a dangerous position facing the rest of the world" if it considers stating that its West Bank presence did not violate international law.
The panel's members are well-known figures on the right. Edmund Levy, a retired Supreme Court justice, had been perceived as a supporter of Israeli settlement activity and had spoken out against Israel's withdrawal of settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Tchia Shapira, an ex-judge of a Tel Aviv district court, is a sister-in-law of prominent settler advocate Israel Harel, while Alan Baker, a former Israeli ambassador to Canada and himself a settler, had in the past advised a settlers' group working to legalise outposts.
The panel used claims by pro-settler groups and attorneys to justify Israel's sovereignty over the West Bank.
The committee reiterated a position long held by the right that the West Bank was not occupied because it was territory taken over from Jordan in 1967, and that Jordan's previous control of the region had not been internationally recognised.
As part of its legal basis, it also cited the 1917 Balfour Declaration, a letter from the then-British foreign secretary to a Jewish British leader that designated the British-controlled area of what is now Jordan and Israel as a "homeland for the Jewish people".
The panel said that the declaration - which had no legal validity - had determined the West Bank as part of the Jewish state and added that Jews had not settled there between 1948 and 1967, the year Israel took over the territory, "only because of the urgency of war".
The liberal daily Haaretz newspaper warned yesterday: "Today, if an Israeli diplomat were to bring such a document to a foreign ministry anywhere in the world, they would be thrown out in disgrace."