United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that the United States does not view Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a violation of international law, reversing long-standing U.S. policy.
Most countries, and the United Nations General Assembly, hold that the settlements contravene the Fourth Geneva Convention, which declares that an occupying power “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territories it occupies.” There are counterarguments: Jewish residency in the area goes back thousands of years and, since Jordanian occupation of the area, which was superseded by Israeli occupation in 1967, was never internationally recognized, there was effectively no legal sovereign power and, as a result, the prohibition outlined by the Geneva Conventions is moot.
These are arcana for legal minds, but the more practical implications of the announcement demand the questions: Why? And why now?
The announcement came 48 hours before the deadline Benny Gantz was granted to form a government in Israel. Was this some last-ditch lifesaver thrown to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu by his friend Donald Trump? Trump seemed to throw Netanyahu more of an anvil than a buoy after Netanyahu’s poor showing in the most recent election, contending that the relationship was between two countries, not between two men. Typically, Trump’s concept of loyalty to ostensible allies is solid as the wind.
And what does the U.S. administration hope to gain from this? Is there some domestic political calculation at play? It may be an ideologically consistent position for Republicans to side with the Israeli right. But ideological consistency, or any consistency at all, is not a hallmark of the administration.
Some would say that there is an overemphasis on settlements as a component of the conflict, that there is a vast range of issues at the root of the continuing Israeli-Palestinian struggle and that settlements are among the most likely to be satisfactorily resolved through compromise. Other accelerants, like incitement in Palestinian society, are less easily dismantled or accommodated through trade-offs.
Whether we are vehemently opposed to settlements in the West Bank, whether we are passionately in favour of the right of Jewish people to live in that area, or whether we fall somewhere in between, realpolitik should convince us that settlements undermine attempts by the Israeli side to project a good-faith commitment to an eventual resolution of the conflict.
But, more to the immediate consequences, almost instantaneously after Pompeo’s comments, the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a branch of his own department, issued a new security alert for Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, warning of potential retaliation by Palestinians in response to Pompeo’s remarks: “U.S. citizens should carefully consider risks to their personal safety and security at sites and events that are potential targets” and “should avoid nonessential movements and events that attract attention.”
Violence should always be blamed on the perpetrator, and defences should not be made that seem to excuse it based on “provocations.” Nevertheless, the Secretary of State made a comment that led to an immediate warning from his own department that American and Israeli people and interests may be put at risk. And for what?
Is this a “gift” to Jewish and Zionist Americans? Sure, if we believe that it is beneficial to have the Diaspora pro-Israel movement associated with the extreme right in both countries, and that our long-standing commitment to peace and two states with contiguous defensible borders is a concept increasingly isolated to the left. Clearer heads would see it as a very divisive gift indeed, a Trojan horse more than a gift basket from Zabar’s.
For whatever else it may have been, Pompeo’s statement is, at root, the manifestation of something we have repeatedly warned against in the space: the politicization of the important bilateral relationship with Israel for short-term political reasons. That isn’t good for Israel in the long run.