Nov 19th 2019
THE ANNOUNCEMENT on November 18th by Mike Pompeo, the American secretary of state, was unscheduled but not entirely unexpected. He said that, following a legal review by the State Department, Israeli settlements in the West Bank are “not, per se, inconsistent with international law”. This is the latest in a series of such gestures by the Trump administration over the past two years, including recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and accepting its sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.
Looked at more broadly, the change of policy is also wholly in tune with Donald Trump’s tendency to disregard accepted diplomatic norms. Despite some dissenting views, the wide international consensus for decades has been that the settlements Israel has built in the territories it captured in the war with Arab states in 1967 are indeed illegal. They are deemed to contravene the Fourth Geneva Convention, which stipulates that “the occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
For over four decades, this has been the view even of Israel’s allies, including most American administrations (with the exception of Ronald Reagan’s, cited by Mr Pompeo). However, Israel, undeterred, has clung to its own interpretation of international law. Over the past 52 years it has built hundreds of settlements, both in east Jerusalem, which it formally annexed in 1967, and in the wider areas of the West Bank (what Israel calls Judea and Samaria). Palestinians, and much of the rest of the world, regard these, as well as the Gaza Strip, as belonging to a future Palestinian state.
Settlements have been built and expanded under every Israeli government of the past half-century, whichever party was in power. Labour regarded the occupied territories as bargaining chips in a future peace deal with Jordan or the Palestinians. Likud, the party of the present prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, sees the West Bank as the ancient Jewish homeland, never to be relinquished. According to Peace Now, an Israeli advocacy group, 428,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank (not including east Jerusalem), alongside 2.6m Palestinians.
The timing of the announcement may well have been engineered by pro-settler elements in the Trump administration. Chief among them is David Friedman, Mr Trump’s former bankruptcy lawyer and his current ambassador to Israel, who has been pushing for a while for such a shift. It was partly in response to a ruling on November 12th by the European Court of Justice, reinforcing European Union guidelines that food products exported from the West Bank settlements should not be labelled “Made in Israel”, but specify they were manufactured in the occupied territories.
Mr Pompeo’s announcement is unlikely to have any immediate impact on the ground. The settlements have been growing at a steady clip anyway, and in the three years since Mr Trump took office, 30,000 new settlers have arrived. Although Mr Netanyahu’s government has in this period officially added only one new settlement, settlers have independently opened 26 new “outposts”, with the government usually turning a blind eye.
For the Palestinians, whose leaders were swift in condemning the move, it will not change much either. Their relations with the Trump administration had already broken down. They cut off all talks two years ago, after America recognised Jerusalem—the putative capital of a future Palestinian state—as Israel’s capital. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, had already rejected Mr Trump’s much-vaunted peace plan (the “deal of the century”), though it is unclear if it will ever actually be presented. The administration has since ordered the closure of the Palestinian mission in Washington and cut nearly all of the funding it provided the Palestinian Authority, which runs parts of the West Bank but has lost control of the Gaza Strip to its Islamist rival, Hamas. Following the announcement, the State Department issued a travel warning to Americans, warning them of potential unrest in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. But in the short term, it is unlikely to lead to a big surge in violence.
So it is easy to dismiss the administration’s switch of policy as largely an empty gesture, aimed at a domestic audience, and intended mainly to appeal to the pro-Israel evangelical American voters Mr Trump will need for re-election in 2020. But it could have harmful effects in the longer term.
Mr Netanyahu has announced a number of times this year that he intends in the near future to annex formally parts of the West Bank. Having failed in two consecutive elections in April and September to win a majority, Israel is in political deadlock and any annexation plans are now on hold. But Mr Pompeo’s announcement will encourage any future Israeli government to plough ahead.
Pandering to right-wing voters, Benny Gantz, the centrist leader of the opposition, also welcomed the announcement. Mr Gantz, whose Blue and White party won a plurality of seats, is at present struggling to form a government of his own. Should he succeed, he will have to grapple with the settlement issue himself. He has not presented any plans for doing so.
The settlements, especially those populated mainly by radical Jews deep within the West Bank, are both a financial and security burden on the Israeli state. Annexation of the West Bank would present its own set of problems. If the Palestinians are made Israeli citizens, they will soon come to outnumber the country’s Jewish population. If they are not given the same rights, Israel would resemble an apartheid state.
“We’ve recognized the reality on the ground,” said Mr Pompeo—while ignoring the risks to Israel’s status as a Jewish democratic state.
Israel’s growing settlements force stark choices about its future (February 2019)
Original Headline: America legitimises Israeli settlements in the West Bank
Source: The Economist