Statements by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Washington no longer views Israeli settlements as violating international law were the latest in a series of decisions by the administration of Donald Trump in support of Tel Aviv. Other colossal decisions included recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and transferring the US embassy there, erasing “Occupied Territories” from the lexicon of the US State Department, and recognising Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights in Syria.
The statements came at a time when Israel is struggling through political crisis due to the inability of any of the major political blocs that won Knesset seats in the last elections to form a government, neither the ruling Likud Party led by sitting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu nor the Kahol Lavan (Blue White) coalition led by former chief of staff of the army Benny Gantz. At the same time, Trump’s close ally Netanyahu is facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust which pose the greatest threat to his political career after 13 years serving as prime minister.
Pompeo’s statements revealed that Washington’s position is at odds with the majority of the world community, and they were met with strong criticism from Arab and Muslim countries, the EU and UN because the decision contradicts Security Council resolutions which describe settlements as illegal because they are built on occupied Palestinian land. On 18 November, Pompeo announced that his country no longer views Israeli settlements as “inconsistent with international law”. He said: “After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate, this administration believes the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.” Adding: “Calling [Israeli settlements] inconsistent with international law has not advanced the cause of peace.”
Until Pompeo’s announcement, US policy — at least theoretically — was built on a legal advisory issued by the State Department in 1978 that views settlement building on Palestinian land as contradictory to international law. In the last weeks of his presidency, former US president Barack Obama infuriated Israel by not using the US’s veto power to block Security Council Resolution 2334 which described Israeli settlements as a “flagrant violation” of international law. Pompeo said the US rejects the approach of Obama’s administration but denied the move which gives Israel a green light to build more settlements.
Since 1967, Israel has occupied internationally-recognised Palestinian land, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. The vast majority of the world community views settlements as illegal based on Security Council resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention on the rules of war, which states settlement building is violation of all international principles and prohibits the occupying power from transferring Israelis to occupied territories.
A few days before Pompeo’s statements, the European Court of Justice ruled that EU member states must identify products made in settlements as “product of settlements” not “made in Israel”. Washington’s policy shift on settlements in the West Bank triggered a global backlash; it was strongly opposed by the Arab League and the 15 members of the Security Council — except for the US — who reiterated the “illegitimacy” of settlements. Meanwhile, Israel warmly welcomed the US’s move and the majority of politicians, media and settler associations lauded Pompeo’s statements. Netanyahu described it as a “correction of a historic mistake”, while Palestinian factions condemned the US position, asserting that it is “void, rejected, condemned and completely contradicts international law and resolutions of international legitimacy”.
Nabil Abu Rudeina, spokesman for the Palestinian presidency, told the official news agency WAFA: “The announcement by [Pompeo] entirely contradicts international law and international legitimacy resolutions condemning settlements, and Security Council resolutions, especially Resolution 2334.” Abu Rudeina said the US administration “is not qualified or authorised to cancel international legitimacy decisions, and has no right to legitimise Israeli settlements. The US administration has lost all credibility and no longer has a role in the peace process.”
Saeb Erekat, secretary general of Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), said the Palestinian Authority (PA) began with several steps against the US position regarding settlements, including addressing international organisations. Erekat told a news conference in Ramallah: “We will go to the Security Council, the UN General Assembly, International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Human Rights Council to lobby against this decision... We have started discussions in the UN regarding a draft Security Council resolution.” Erekat added the PA will ask the ICC to “start official investigations with Israel officials regarding settlements”.
During the long marathon of negotiations that started when Oslo was signed in 1993, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements were the most complicated issues on the table. Settlements are still the most-thorny issue in the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The US declaration is another blow to international consensus about the conflict, and another move by the US in favour of Israel. In December 2017, Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and transferred the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018, and he stopped financial aid to the PA and UNRWA.
More than 650,000 Israeli settlers live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank alongside more than three million Palestinians. The Palestinian Census Bureau said there are 435 Israeli settlements and military bases in the West Bank and Jerusalem, including 150 settlements that are either agricultural, industrial or artisan (such as the two settlement towns of Ariel near Nablus and Maale Adumim near Jerusalem). Also, 116 settlement pockets do not have official permits from the government.
Statistics issued by the Palestinian Census Bureau on the anniversary of Land Day in March show that there are 655,000 settlers, including 225,000 in East Jerusalem. There are 22.6 settlers for every 100 Palestinians in the West Bank, with the highest ratio in Jerusalem at 70 settlers per 100 Palestinians. According to statistics, Israel occupies 85 per cent of historic Palestine which covers an area of 27,000 square kilometres, and Palestinians only have 15 per cent of historic Palestine left. The Census Bureau stated that the area of influence of Israeli settlements in the West Bank reached 541.5 square kilometres at the end of 2018, which is about 9.6 per cent of the West Bank, which is an area of 5,860 square kilometres. Areas annexed for military and training purposes amount to 18 per cent of the West Bank, which prevents Palestinian farmers and shepherds from reaching their fields and grazing land.
The Census Bureau said Israeli occupation places many obstacles to prevent Palestinian urban expansion, especially in Jerusalem and Area C, which constitute 60 per cent of the West Bank and are still under full occupation control. As well as the annexation and expansion of the Separation Wall that isolated more than 12 per cent of West Bank territories. According to Palestinian estimates, when the Palestinians began the peace process in 1993 there were no more than 105,000 settlers in the West Bank.
Palestinians say that Israel views the West Bank as disputed territory not occupied territory; that there is no occupation only the liberation of Israeli land that was under Jordanian control (before 1967) and Palestinian control (today), and that land between the river (River Jordan) and sea (Mediterranean Sea) is one state. They say a two-state solution is impossible due to the settlement cancer that has spread and prevents the creation of a geographically connected Palestinian state.
Hossam Dajani, a political analyst, said the US administration’s decision to legitimise settlements challenges Washington itself before challenging the world, since it voted for Resolution 2334 criminalising settlements, and is a shift that contradicts decades of steadfast US foreign policy. It also contradicts the EU’s decision to boycott goods made in settlements, and the world position on this issue. Dajani added: “There are two possible options for the Palestinian leadership in response to this unprecedented and illegal decision. First, officially declare that the US and Israel have destroyed the two-state solution, and we have opted for a secular democratic one-state solution. Second, officially declare and on the ground show that all signed agreements with Israel are null and void, triggering a revolution where the Palestinian people use all legitimate means to protect their land and Israel is boycotted by Arab, Muslim and world countries as an occupation state.”
Meanwhile, many analysts, think tanks and politicians in Israel welcomed the US decision, noting that with this move Trump has given Netanyahu a lifeline. Aron David Miller, a former US State Department official who worked for both Republican and Democrat presidents, said with this decision “the administration has started to dismantle the basic foundation that shaped the traditional position of a two-state solution. This makes a peace settlement unlikely.” Miller told The Times of Israel website: “The latest step is within the broader context of what the US is doing. At least in part, it looks like it is designed to help Netanyahu as he faces one of the most difficult political battles of his life.”
Historically, most US administrations were ambiguous about the legality of settlements, only describing them as an obstacle to peace. The two exceptions were president Jimmy Carter who clearly stated that settlements are a violation of international law, and president Obama who allowed the US not to veto Resolution 2334 in December 2016. Media reports revealed that US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who is a die-hard supporter of Israel, hatched the idea that settlements do not violate international law.
The US news website Axios said Friedman worked on pushing the decision through to radically change US policy after he succeeded in moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and erasing the description “occupied territories” from the lexicon of the US State Department at the beginning of this year. The website quoted unnamed US and Israeli officials as saying: “Friedman pushed for changing US policy on the legitimacy of Israeli settlements early on in the Trump administration, but former secretary of state Rex Tillerson objected.” In March 2018, Trump replaced Tillerson with Pompeo who was serving as CIA director. Sources said Friedman raised the issue again with Pompeo and this time received a green light.
Israel Today agrees, reporting that “a substantial number of right-wing figures and activists worked behind the scenes to change US policy on settlements, but the most influential were Friedman who started the process, Pompeo who ordered the State Department to look into it, and of course Trump, who was the silent partner in the beginning and welcomed the move.”
A paper on Pompeo’s statements and their repercussions published by the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel said the timing of the declaration is a component of the “Deal of the Century”, and possibly a way for the administration to show its objection to the decision by the EU Court of Justice to clearly label goods made in settlements or the Golan Heights. The statements could also be to appease Trump’s Christian base before the elections, and help Netanyahu on the Israeli political scene.
The paper, translated by the Palestinian Atlas website for Israeli Studies, based in Gaza, said that from an Israeli domestic perspective one of the factors preventing annexing West Bank land to Israel is concern over Washington’s response. This latest development could be viewed as a green light to annex the land, which would have a negative impact on the security situation and reaching a reasonable agreement with Palestinians. It could also lead to a negative political response against Israel by the world community.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.