Dovish supporters of Israel have often characterised American reluctance to publicly pressure Israel on its settlement activity in the West Bank as akin to a friend of a drug addict doing nothing as the addiction takes its toll. This analogy has become especially pertinent in the Trump era, as more egregious settlement developments have been met with silence from Washington. And yet the analogy needs to be updated: the enabler friend has become a fellow addict.
We can therefore interpret US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s announcement to drop America’s stance on settlements as inconsistent with international law. If silence in the face of settlement expansion represents a nod of tacit approval regarding a troubling trend, then the new US stance marks nothing less than a thinly-veiled broadside on the two-state solution.
While US opposition to settlements primarily reflects its position that they constitute an obstacle to peace, grounding this stance in international law has been critical to signalling to Israel that the whole settlement enterprise is immoral and must be stopped. Without this pressure, Israel would be left to build in settlements at will and to seize parts of the West Bank.
What is most at stake with this announcement is the unravelling of two decades of consensus-building on how borders in a two-state solution may look. Since the 1990s, Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestinians – with the help of the US and the international community – have refined the parameters for an agreed-upon solution of the four core issues to the conflict: Jerusalem, refugees, security, and borders. The Trump administration has deliberately undermined progress on each of these issues.
First, it sabotaged the formula of two capitals for two states by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and downgrading the independent US consulate there for Palestinians to a “Palestinian affairs unit.” Then it tried to take the refugee issue off the table by cutting funds to the UNWRA, a United Nations body which provides services exclusively for Palestinian refugees.
This summer its ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, openly sided with the Netanyahu government’s demand to retain the Jordan Valley, one of the key Israeli-Palestinian sticking points on security. A month later, Netanyahu threw his support behind a bill to annex the region.
Now, Pompeo’s announcement directly challenges the idea that borders would be based on the pre-1967 lines with minor land swaps — the prescription that recognises the inadmissibility of acquiring territories in war but which makes room for small, practical alterations.
Bottom line, if settlements are no longer considered against international law, then in the eyes of the US, settlement construction is not a problem as long as it has a plan to annex them.
Currently, there are some 427,800 settlers in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem. While most could be incorporated into Israel in a two-state land swap deal, around 150,000 (20 times the amount evacuated in the Gaza Strip in 2005) would need to be evacuated if the Palestinians have any chance at establishing a viable state and being a stable neighbour for Israel.
Even with generous compensation packages for their families, it remains an unfathomably difficult feat for an Israeli leader to direct an evacuation of this scale without losing his coalition the next day.
So why would the United States allow Israel to go down a path of unfettered settlement expansion from which it cannot extricate itself? Because apparently it is now considered an interest of the current US administration to encourage such short-sighted, Israeli annexationist policies.
Perhaps it is intended as a PR favour to Netanyahu as his political fortunes hang in the balance, or because Trump wants to pander to his far-right pro-Israel donors and messianic Evangelical base. Or it is on account of Ambassador Friedman’s outsized role in crafting the US-Israel policy? Or it is a combination of all of the above?
Whatever the reasons, what is clear is that this announcement marks a continuation of the administration’s overall direction of sidelining Palestinians and reinterpreting the expectations of a final status agreement based on unhealthy Israeli maximalist positions.
If the Trump administration truly supported an equitable and durable two-state solution, it would clear the air about its opposition to settlement building – among other problematic actions on both sides – and it would attempt to further bridge the divides between the parties rather than moving the goal posts.
At this point, both Israel and the United States badly need to go to rehab — to recommit to their founding democratic values and to again become upstanding members of the global liberal order. Until then, Israel may have a strong ally in America, but it does not have a friend.
Brian Reeves is the director of external relations at Peace Now, a movement for a two-state solution in Israel
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