Benjamin Netanyahu was out and about on Tuesday milking for all it was worth the Trump administration’s “historic” decision that it no longer sees Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as illegal. In the heart of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc he lost no time in claiming much of the credit for secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s announcement “which we have greatly worked for”.
He can say that again. For this indefensible decision, overturning the administration of Barack Obama’s clear alignment with a half century-old western consensus that the settlements are illegal in international law, is as much about the political welfare of two men, as about Donald Trump’s unswerving determination to recast US policy in favour of the Israeli right. One is the beleaguered Netanyahu, whose main purpose in life now is staying out of jail. His desperate, but possibly vain, hope, after an inconclusive second election in September, is that it will help him to cling on to the premiership long enough to fend off a trial on the three corruption indictments he faces (he denies all the allegations).
The other is Trump himself, facing impeachment-related troubles of his own, and anxious to please the most fanatically pro-Israel elements in his base, especially the Christian evangelical element of it, ahead of an election year. The administration has in the process recklessly sacrificed, at least as long as Trump remains president, the last shreds of the US’s claim to be a broker of a peace which it has instead made an even more distant prospect than it was already
Protected by Israel’s military might, the settlements, swallowing more and more Palestinian land and resources, and blocking free movement for Palestinians, remain the biggest obstacle to a negotiated end to the conflict. This week’s decision won’t change those basic fundamentals. But it will empower the settlers’ leaders, as their reactions have made clear, to press their calls for further expansion and unilateral annexation of large parts of the West Bank while Trump is there to give it the green light. And it will increase the already high levels of despair among Palestinians who after more than half a century still do not enjoy basic civil or political rights.
Pompeo’s statement on Monday was an Orwellian masterpiece of illogic and – putting it politely – half-truth. “Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law hasn’t advanced the cause of peace”, he explained. As if not so calling them would “advance the cause of peace”: Trump used exactly the same “the right thing hasn’t worked so let’s try the wrong thing” argument for reversing Washington’s 71-year-old refusal to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; and the notable lack of help that has been in resolving the conflict is plain for all to see.
Pompeo said that Ronald Reagan had similarly overturned his predecessor Jimmy Carter’s unequivocal stance that the settlements were illegal. He omitted to add that even Reagan – like Margaret Thatcher – was increasingly frustrated by the growth of settlements, and demanded a freeze when the number of settlers were a fraction of the more than 600,000 Israelis who now live in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Finally Pompeo ended his statement with the breathtaking assertion that would not prejudice the status of the West Bank in future negotiations and that the US remained “deeply committed to help facilitate peace”. This sat uneasily with the state department warning issued shortly afterwards advising US citizens against travel to the occupied territories because of a possible Palestinian backlash against his announcement.
The reason that declarations of the settlements’ illegality didn’t “advance the cause of peace” was not that they were made, but that successive US administrations didn’t apply the sanctions that might have enforced them. “The US could have stopped the settlements so easily,” the liberal Israeli novelist AB Yehoshua told me back in 2005. “Since the Six Day War they were saying they were against the settlements and they have done nothing.”
It’s sometimes forgotten that one of the first lawyers to recognise the illegality under international law of civilian settlement in the Palestinian territories which had just been occupied in the Six Day War was Theodor Meron, the Israeli foreign ministry’s own legal counsel at the time. Meron, who rose to be a renowned international jurist and president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, confirmed – to The Independent as it happens – in 2007 that was still his view.
But Pompeo’s announcement has wider implications than for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, serious as those are. And on that its hard to better the tweet by the former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt: “The new US position that international legality is of no relevance will undoubtedly discreetly please both Moscow and Beijing. They will no longer have to be lectured by the US on Ukraine and South China Sea. But the rest of the world will be less safe.”
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