In the latest reversal of long-standing United States policy in the Middle East, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared this week that Washington no longer views Israeli settlements in the West Bank as “inconsistent with international law.”
Pompeo framed the decision as a “reversal” of Obama administration policy. He said, “[Former] Secretary [of State John] Kerry changed decades of this careful bipartisan approach by publicly reaffirming the supposed illegality of settlements,” referring to a December 2016 resolution in the United Nations Security Council that termed the settlements illegal, which President Barack Obama permitted to pass by abstaining from the vote.
But in fact, Obama had been more tolerant of Israeli settlement than his predecessors. While he talked more often about their being an obstacle to peace, that abstention was the only time in his eight years in office that Obama had allowed a U.N. resolution critical of Israel to pass. By contrast, George W. Bush permitted six UNSC resolutions to which Israel objected to pass. Ronald Reagan permitted twenty.
Obama even vetoed a UNSC resolution whose text was almost verbatim U.S. policy, causing himself quite a bit of embarrassment in the international arena. On another occasion, Israel announced a new and highly controversial settlement in East Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was in the country. The administration’s reaction was to do a reading of standard talking points and move on.
Distorting Obama’s record affects more than the president’s legacy. It increases the distortion of politics around Israel and its occupation. Obama emphasized actual Israeli security needs, which, in his view, included finding an agreement with the Palestinians, and lowering the temperature between Israel (and Saudi Arabia) and Iran. Trump has focused on crowd-pleasing, grandiose gestures like moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem a move that eliminated any possibility of diplomacy with the Palestinians; or leaving the Iran nuclear deal, which aggravated tensions with Iran, thereby making the environment considerably less secure for Israel. Much like the neoconservative strategies of the early part of the century, casting those who pursue diplomacy as a threat to security allows hawks to get away with making the region less secure for everyone. Read more at LobeLog
For many years, the Israeli government has waged what we might call a campaign of normalization regarding its military occupation of the West Bank. Israel has spared no effort to erase the demarcation between its internationally recognized boundaries—the territory Israel controlled prior to the 1967 war when it captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula, and Golan Heights—and the areas under military occupation.
The effort has never gotten the attention it deserves, and that problem has only gotten worse in recent years as the two-state solution has retreated further and further into the realm of fantasy. Still, its importance remains, whatever ultimate solution one supports. This week, a ruling by the European Court of Justice raised the issue again, and in doing so, clarified the importance of the issue.
The Court ruled that products made in Israeli settlements needed to be labeled as such, so that European consumers could make an informed choice as to whether they wanted to buy them. This is a long-standing regulation in Europe, one which the EU started to enforce in 2015, and which Israel has been fighting all along. The reactions to the latest ruling are typical. Read more at LobeLog
The Irish Senate passed a bill last week that would criminalize doing any business, in goods or services, with Israeli settlements. As with most legislation that concerns Israeli settlement activity, the
Irish Senator Frances Black, who first proposed the anti-settlements bill
bill is already highly controversial. Supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement have hailed it as a great victory while the usual suspects in and outside of Israel have leveled baseless accusations of anti-Semitism at Ireland and made disingenuous arguments to oppose any action against Israel’s blatantly illegal settlement program. Read more at LobeLog
In December, President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced his intention to move the US embassy there. Condemnations abounded, with great hand-wringing and troubled emotions. The United States had to veto an otherwise unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the decision but could not block a similar UN General Assembly resolution, which passed overwhelmingly.
Palestinians took to the streets in protest, as did other people across the Middle East and around the world, including in the United States itself. There was some violence, but it was not very different from protests against past Israeli actions. Outside of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, those protests came and went in a matter of weeks.
Inside the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, the US decision shattered the last shreds of credibility of the “peace process,” which was long used to keep the lid on Palestinians while settlements expanded. As a result, Donald Trump has become as much an enemy to Palestinians as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
After Trump’s Jerusalem Declaration
Trump destroyed the basis for a two-state solution and crippled the chances for a peaceful alternative to that solution in the short term. He also radically shifted the United States from being a biased interlocutor between its dear friend Israel and the barely tolerated Palestinians to a full-fledged partner with Israel in its attempt to destroy the very concept of Palestine as a nation with national rights. In response, the international community did nothing but mutter some complaints, wag a finger, and move on with business as usual.
It was this very outcome that I warned about when Trump was making his decision on Jerusalem. I wrote, “there’s also a distinct possibility that after a week or two of protests, and even some violence, by the beginning of 2018, US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has become the new normal,” and that if that happened, “It would also tell Israel, in no uncertain terms, that its view that its national and territorial desires completely trump Palestinian rights is correct.”
Israel has received that message loud and clear, and both Jerusalem and Washington are moving forward on that basis. Benjamin Netanyahu said today that “I can tell you that I’ve been talking about [annexing the settlements] with the Americans.” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely—Netanyahu himself holds the foreign minster’s portfolio—elaborated on this at a right wing conference in Jerusalem:
I have no doubt that with this current American administration, with the right cooperation and work, we can reach agreements on this topic — something that never existed on the past. There was never [before] a [US] administration that said settlements are not an obstacle to peace.
All of this comes amidst two other developments: the leaking of parts of the Trump administration’s plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the decision by the Israeli government to temporarily halt a bill that would extend Israeli sovereignty to the settlements.
Annexation of Settlements
Israel attributed its decision not to immediately move forward with the so-called “Annexation Bill” to concerns about the “security situation in the North,” which refers to the tensions with Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, and Syria that escalated this weekend after Israel conducted large-scale bombing raids in Syria and Syria downed an Israeli fighter jet. In fact, it was really done for two other reasons.
One reason is that Netanyahu, identifying the annexation of settlements correctly as a historic moment, said that “…it must be a government initiative rather than a private one.” The other is that Netanyahu wants to coordinate this move with the American “peace plan.”
Palestinian journalist Mohammed Othman describes the leaked details of the plan in Al-Monitor: “Palestinians will have their own ‘city of Jerusalem’ by building new villages and neighborhoods. This is combined with the establishment of a Palestinian state that includes over half of the West Bank area, all of the Gaza Strip and some neighborhoods in Jerusalem.” The Jerusalem point repeats what has been proposed many times, that Abu Dis or another Jerusalem suburb be renamed “al-Quds,” the Arabic name of Jerusalem. Such a sham has never gained any traction at all among Palestinians, and it is hard to see how it ever could.
The plan, Othman reports, is being prepared without any Palestinian input. It
allows for the annexation of 10% of the West Bank area to Israel; allocation of parts of Ashdod and Haifa for Palestinian use, while Israel remains in charge of the security there; the establishment of a safe passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank under Israeli sovereignty; and granting Israel the upper hand in the demilitarized Palestinian state, which will have its own police force.
It’s obviously not a plan that the Palestinians will accept. But it is also a plan that the US and Israel can impose on them.
Implications of Netanyahu’s Statement
After Netanyahu made his statement about discussing annexation with the Americans, Haaretz reporter Barak Ravid tweeted that a US official told him that, “The U.S. hasn’t received or agreed to any proposals from Israel about annexation of the settlements in the West Bank.” Israeli officials quickly confirmed that this was so, as did the White House’s spokesperson. But Netanyahu’s actual claim of having discussed the matter with the US was not contradicted, merely clarified.
Despite the back and forth over statements, it is clear that Israel would be annexing the settlements under the US plan. Netanyahu is probably discussing with Washington precisely what land Israel would annex. Although one leak of the US plan has Israel annexing some 10% of the West Bank, another gives the Palestinians just over half of the territory. The 10% figure refers to the built-up areas of the settlements, but a final Trump plan, worked out to Israel’s approval, would likely give Israel considerably more land around the settlements. The regional councils that govern the settlements, along with the closed “military zones” that essentially bar Palestinians from even entering, make up some 42% of the West Bank. This “less than half” figure is what Israel could reasonably expect to get in a Trump plan.
Although the Palestinian leadership will protest and appeal and the Palestinian people will surely take to the streets in prolonged demonstrations, the US and Israel can impose this plan. Israel can declare sovereignty over its settlements and the US can recognize it. If the Palestinians do not choose to self-govern, Israel can wall them off. And the plan is thus imposed.
Failure of the International Community
And why shouldn’t Israel do so? The international community has done nothing in response to Trump’s “taking Jerusalem off the table,” which effectively decides the matter in favor of Israel. The plan would implicitly keep the actual city of Jerusalem “united” under Israeli rule, would extend Israeli sovereignty to the settlements, would establish permanent Israeli borders, and resolve the Palestinian refugee question by telling those refugees that they’re on their own.
That’s the “peace” Netanyahu and Trump envision. A third intifada of some kind would probably result, but Netanyahu likely believes that he can quell that by outlasting and out-brutalizing the Palestinians as Ariel Sharon did during the second such uprising. Protests elsewhere would come and go.
The international community has enabled this by its muted reaction to the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Is it prepared to do more than author resolutions and issue statements? Is it ready to act against the United States and Israel in some meaningful way? If not, and it seems highly unlikely that it will, the Trump plan will go ahead.
I suspect that Netanyahu is underestimating the consequences. The reaction to such an imposed plan could be much wider than a third intifada. It could involve Iran. It could draw in other Arab states, as well as the United States in some fashion. And, like the Jerusalem decision, it will have long-term implications that are not immediately visible.
But Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition seem bent on this course, and it seems the Trump administration is all in. Only a concerted and unified effort by the international community can avert what, in the best-case scenario would be another, maybe even a bigger, catastrophe for the Palestinians and, in the worst case, could spark a regional war as well.
On March 30, the Israeli government announced that it had approved the first new settlement in 20 years. The new settlement is part of the government’s compensation package to the settlers of the recently evacuated outpost named Amona. The Israeli courts had ordered the demolition of this illegally built settlement for the first-time way back in 2006. This February, Amona was finally removed.
But despite the controversy over the new settlement, it’s not actually the first new one in 20 years. True, it’s the first settlement in that time that the government publicly planned and did not claim to be part of an existing settlement. But in that period, outposts that were ostensibly illegal under Israeli law, have become legal when they declared themselves part of an existing settlement somewhere in the same general area. More recently, outposts have been legalized retroactively under a new law. So, this is the “first new settlement” only in the most technical, and largely meaningless, sense.
More important are the steps that both the Israeli and US governments are taking in the wake of the Israeli announcement. These are the real indicators of the policy taking shape in the discussions between the Trump and Netanyahu governments.
What Israel Is Saying
At a meeting last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet that Israel would adopt a new policy for settlement expansion to mollify the US administration. This policy would have four points:
Israel will build in “previously developed areas.”
Where such construction is not permitted, Israel will allow expansion in areas adjacent to the developed areas.
“Where neither of these criteria are met, due to legal, security or topographical constraints, Israel will allow construction on the closest land possible to developed areas.”
Israel will not allow the creation of any new illegal outposts.
This is what Netanyahu presents as a policy of restraint. In fact, however, the policy amounts to unrestrained growth. As Hagit Ofran of Peace Now points out, “If it’s permissible to build in the built-up area, adjacent to it and close to it – then, in practice, it’s possible to build everywhere.” But the point about outposts is even more telling.
Israel has always maintained that settlements do not violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer of citizens of an occupying power to an occupied territory. Although most of the world (including the vast majority of international jurists and legal experts) rejects those arguments, for internal Israeli purposes Israeli law deems officially sanctioned settlements legal.
“Illegal outposts” are wildcat settlements, usually begun with just a few mobile homes on a hilltop. In some instances, these outposts have been taken down; in others, they have developed into small towns. That Netanyahu needed to announce that Israel would not permit illegal actions, which his government has not only permitted but retroactively legalized, highlights the absurdity of the policy.
Goals of the “New Policy”
The most notable aspect of Netanyahu’s announcement is what is not there: any mention of settlement blocs. For many years, since the exchange of letters in 2004 between US President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, there has been a tacit understanding between Washington and Jerusalem (though pointedly, not involving the Palestinian Authority) that Israel could, without controversy, continue to build up its so-called settlement blocs. Just how many blocs there are and which groups of settlements qualify as blocs has not always been clear, but the basic principle has been there.
In more recent years, voices in both the US and Israel like those of Dennis Ross, Elliott Abrams, and Isaac Herzog, among others, have called for a formal US agreement on the expansion of the blocs that differentiates between them and other settlements. This will only impede progress, as I’ve explained in the past. But now, Netanyahu has, under the guise of a policy of “restraint,” moved past even that scant limitation.
Netanyahu’s announcement may be intended to create the framework for settlement expansion in the Trump era. Netanyahu rarely faced anything from the Obama administration beyond tepid statements about US disagreement with Israeli policies, yet he was reluctant to go too far in defying Obama on settlements for fear of provoking a stronger reaction. With Donald Trump, however, Netanyahu wants to lay down a framework in the early months of the new administration that he can use to stretch the boundaries of settlement expansion. Doing so in terms of “limiting” that expansion allows Trump to appear that he is keeping Israel in check, while mollifying Netanyahu’s right flank.
In establshing that framework, Netanyahu knows he cannot be seen as its creator. Thus, he announces a “new policy,” a goodwill gesture toward Washington, not an agreement with Trump. This allows Trump to potentially extract further “concessions” down the road.
Domestically, Netanyahu has gotten virtually no pushback from his coalition. This should be very surprising. If Israel did voluntarily impose limits on settlement construction without any coordination with Washington, the Israeli right wing would ordinarily see such a move as a major concession that it would detest and protest. But this has not been the reaction because the policy does not limit Israeli settlement expansion in any material way.
In Tandem With Trump
The US response works hand in hand with Israel’s strategy, suggesting that, although Israel’s announcement was a unilateral step, it may also be a part of a coordinated plan. Given the recent visit of Trump’s envoy, Jason Greenblatt, to the region, this is a distinct possibility.
The White House’s statement on March 31 in response to Israel’s “new settlement” announcement was a clear departure from long-standing US policy. Accompanying a statement that “the existence of settlements is not in itself an impediment to peace,” the Trump administration “noted” that 2,000 new settlement tenders had already been announced before Trump took office, “before President Trump had a chance to lay out any expectations.”
The implication here is obvious, and it is made more than once in Trump’s statement. Trump says that agreements with prior administrations are moot. Excusing settlement expansion on the basis that it was a step taken during a prior administration is a stunning departure from the norms of international diplomacy. Yes, new presidents may change policies, but previous commitments and expectations do not simply vanish in the wind when a new administration comes to power.
Now, Netanyahu has voluntarily laid down parameters for settlement-building. Although many have already pointed out that this “new policy” is a sham, Trump’s statement strongly suggests that it will be the baseline from which Trump will ask for some further steps from Netanyahu. Perhaps Trump will press for building inly within established blocs. Maybe it will be something else. And those requests may elicit more of a response from Netanyahu’s coalition.
But those will be manageable, not the sorts of objections that could threaten Netanyahu’s government. That’s because the framework Netanyahu has now established allows for so much settlement expansion that any minor concessions will not translate into real limits. Netanyahu’s party and most of their coalition partners will understand this.
A Palestinian Response?
All of this has been greeted with deafening silence from Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. This may be understandable, but it is also very dangerous.
Abbas seems to understand that a right-wing Republican president like Trump would find it easier to push for a peace agreement. Trump is less vulnerable to attacks from the right and, if he pursues a plan with some hope for success and to which Israel is at least minimally amenable, he is not likely to be besieged by Democrats. George W. Bush’s Roadmap and the Annapolis conference exemplify this reality. So, Abbas is trying to build some sort of positive relationship with Trump.
But what seems to be taking shape here is an endgame strategy: to present an Israel that is taking its own steps toward restraint and a US government that is still pushing for more. In the meantime, efforts will be redoubled in Washington, Amman, and Cairo to press forward with a regional initiative that widens public dialogue with Israel. The hope would be that this will lead to greater Arab pressure on Abbas to accept “the best deal you can get,” which is likely to include some arrangement for Israel to maintain its military presence in the Jordan Valley, annex the major settlement blocs, and leave the rest for the Palestinians to call a state.
The framework of a solution is being re-defined without any Palestinian involvement. This has happened in the past, and it’s never worked out well. The Bush-Sharon letters weakened the basis of territorial compromise to the extent that, when the newly minted President Obama referenced the 1967 borders, it became a matter of intense controversy. After those letters, it was assumed that Israel would keep its ill defined “settlement blocs” and the only question was what the Palestinians would get in return.
Another example is the notion of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, an unprecedented concept in international affairs. It was discussed for several years, but when the Obama administration agreed that it should be part of a final status agreement, the terms of negotiation changed and the Palestinians were faced with a condition that they could not meet domestically and could not escape internationally.
The same is happening now. The Palestinians are being isolated politically, and the West Bank is already chopped up by settlements physically. Trump seems intent on starting with his own new slate. Annexing parts of the West Bank is becoming a stronger possibility in Israel.
The Palestinians, whether the Palestinian Authority, Hamas or any other party, are slowly losing even the half-hearted support they have historically received from other Arab countries. The endgame is being dictated to them. Without protest, they will find that another axiom of this conflict can be broken: a “solution” could very well be suddenly imposed upon them.