On Monday evening, Middle East time, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the US no longer considers Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories as inconsistent with international law, signalling a drastic shift in Washington’s position.
“After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate, this administration agrees that the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law,” Pompeo said.
“Clearly this is a major shift in US policy on the Middle East given that Washington has always been opposed, though more often in rhetoric than in fact, to the expansion of Israeli settlements,” said a concerned Egyptian official. “The move, though, is perfectly in line with the policy of the current US administration which has been going the extra-mile to accommodate Israeli public opinion and the US Jewish lobby.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was quick to welcome Pompeo’s statement. Palestinian and some Arab capitals were equally fast to decry the move as an affront to international law, which prohibits the building of settlements in territories occupied by military force, and to the long sequence of UN Security Council resolutions condemning the illegal construction of Israeli settlements in territories occupied in 1967.
“The issue now is not about issuing a statement rejecting the current US recent position which is, after all, compatible with the administration’s overall policy. Rather, we need to act to prepare for the possible consequences on the Palestinian-Israeli front,” the same Egyptian official said.
An American source who spoke from Washington after Pompeo’s statement on Monday did not seem to fear possible political hiccups.
“When the president [Donald Trump] announced the decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel we were truly concerned. We thought there might be demonstrations in several Arab capitals but nothing happened. So this time we are not expecting anything significant to happen. The Arabs seem to have other worries,” he said.
Apart from statements of condemnation from some Arab capitals, including Cairo, the 2017 decision by US President Trump to acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the subsequent move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem last year, passed without significant reaction.
According to the Egyptian official, however, this time “things are different.” In 2017 and 2018, Arab and US diplomats were talking about an American political proposal that might offer the basis for a final settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle.
“Whatever we thought of the components of this offer for a peace deal there was at least an expectation of possible political movement,” he said. “Today, given the complications of the domestic Israeli scene and with Trump preparing for presidential elections against the backdrop of an impeachment inquiry, there are no serious expectations of any peace offer being made anytime soon.”
Palestinian officials from across the political spectrum, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his archenemies in Hamas, firmly rejected the so-called Deal of the Century which they said undermined Palestinian rights for a viable state on territories occupied in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
While few doubted the Palestinians would reject the deal when it was offered, they haven’t had the opportunity to do so because of the tense political scene in Israel where inconclusive elections were held in spring, only to be repeated in autumn. Likud leader Netanyahu faces ongoing corruption charges, and in Washington many diplomats expect Israelis will have to go to the polls for a third time, most probably in spring 2020, by which time it will be too late in the Trump presidency for anyone in the administration to worry about the Palestinian-Israeli struggle.
“I think Trump realises he is not going to be the US president who sponsors a final peace deal, certainly not in the current presidential term. Maybe he will try again if he gets re-elected,” says the Egyptian official. A clear manifestation of this realisation, adds the official, is reflected in “the pressure the US is putting on Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, to end their prolonged feud.
“Trump wants to be able to claim a political victory in the region to substitute for his failed attempt to propose a peace deal for the Palestinian-Israeli struggle and get it adopted.”
While Trump is seeking a fig leaf Middle East political victory, and Netanyahu is embroiled in his own political and legal problems, Cairo has to worry about “possible explosions in Gaza, and maybe even in the West Bank”.
Last week Egypt managed to secure a ceasefire between Israel and the Gaza-based Islamist militant resistance movement Jihad, heading off a potential military confrontation between Israel and resistance movements in Gaza that had been provoked by Israeli attacks that saw two senior Jihad figures assassinated in Gaza and Syria 10 days ago.
Egyptian sources say the ceasefire remains fragile, largely because nobody knows how far Netanyahu will go in using military operations to buy time and delay a possible legal process that could see him indicted for corruption.
“At this point we really cannot predict what Netanyahu will do. He could start a new military operation or annex parts of the territories with major settlement blocs given the new US position,” warns the Egyptian official. Nor are there any guarantees Pompeo’s announcement won’t spark “a massive show of anger by Palestinians, not just in Gaza but also in the West Bank”.
As a precautionary measure, the source said, Cairo will continue its “routine mediation” to make sure neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are breaching the no attack and no offence basis of the recent ceasefire. Cairo, he added, will also work to ease restrictions on the entry of individuals, and possibly goods, into Gaza.
“We cannot change the position of the US. Arab countries are too busy with their internal affairs to worry about this and most influential capitals in the Gulf have too many domestic concerns, or else remain fixated on Iran. All we can do is try to avert an explosion that could get out of hand.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.