JERUSALEM - Dozens of American Jewish leaders and scholars have made a rare appeal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, asking him to make sure his government rejects a report that denies Israel is occupying the West Bank.
In a letter to Netanyahu, more than 40 prominent Jewish figures predicted the report authored by former Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy would tarnish Israel's image and jeopardize prospects for peace with the Palestinians.
"We recognize and regret that the Palestinian Authority has abdicated leadership by not returning to the negotiating table," they wrote in the letter, obtained Monday by The Associated Press. "Nonetheless, our great fear is that the Levy Report will not strengthen Israel's position in this conflict, but rather, add fuel to those who seek to delegitimize Israel's right to exist."
Signatories included businessmen and philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Stanley Gold, the former head of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, Tom Dine, and former Jewish Agency board chairman Richard Pearlstone.
Another signatory, Rabbi Daniel Gordis of the Shalem Institute think tank in Jerusalem, said the question was not whether Levy's legal opinion was correct.
"The question is whether or not it is wise for Israel at this particular juncture to take a stand which would appear to most people to be the equivalent of annexing the West Bank," making Israel appear to be the obstructionist party in peace efforts, Gordis told The Associated Press.
The Levy report, written by a committee with pro-settler sympathies and released last week, reaffirmed Israel's longstanding position that the West Bank is not occupied territory and therefore Israel has the legal right to settle it. That position is at odds with the international consensus that settlements are illegitimate and an obstacle to peace.
Israel captured the West Bank, now home to some 2.5 million Palestinians, from Jordan in 1967. It contends there is no sovereign power there because Jordan's 1948 annexation of the West Bank was not internationally recognized, and the Hashemite kingdom renounced all claims to the territory in 1988. Israel never annexed the territory.
The Palestinians and most of the international community say the West Bank was under Jordanian control when it was captured and is not Israeli territory, meaning it is occupied land.
"We are confident that with your deep understanding of the gravity of this situation, and your unprecedented political strength, you will ensure that adoption of this report does not take place," the letter said.
Netanyahu has said he would bring the report's conclusions to a special forum that would decide whether to adopt them.
If endorsed by the government, the recommendations could give Netanyahu ammunition to support new settlement activity and fend off pressure from a Supreme Court that has ordered the government to take action against unauthorized settlement enclaves.
Jewish settlements are at the heart of a 3-year-old deadlock in Mideast peace efforts.
Palestinians view the West Bank as the heartland of a future state. They see all settlement construction as cementing Israel's hold on the territory and say they will not resume negotiations until the building is frozen, something Israel has refused to do.