Home/Daniel Larison/Trump’s Latest Gift to Israeli Hard-liners

Trump’s Latest Gift to Israeli Hard-liners

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, Jared Kushner and President Donald Trump in Jerusalem, May 22, 2017. Credit: Flickr/CreativeCommons/Kobi GideonGPO/Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Trump administration is about to hand Israel another gift in support of its illegal occupation:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to announce on Monday that the U.S. is softening its position on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, the latest in a series of Trump administration moves that weaken Palestinian claims to statehood.

Pompeo plans to repudiate a 1978 State Department legal opinion that held that civilian settlements in the occupied territories are “inconsistent with international law.” The move will likely anger Palestinians and put the U.S. at odds with other nations working to end the conflict.

The administration has repeatedly shown its contempt for international law, and this is just the latest example of that. This is part and parcel of the administration’s ongoing normalization of illegal Israeli occupation. We saw the same thing with the decision to recognize the annexation of the Golan Heights. This is likely a prelude to recognizing any further annexations of occupied territory in the West Bank. Treating illegal settlements as if they are acceptable is one more reversal of longstanding U.S. policy, and it is an obvious sop to hard-line pro-settler Israelis and their allies here in the U.S.:

The shift is a victory for Netanyahu, a longtime booster of the settlements, and had been strongly supported by U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and big Trump donor Sheldon Adelson. Friedman was a major fundraiser for the settlements before becoming ambassador.

Pompeo’s argument for rejecting the earlier State Department legal opinion is predictably fatuous:

“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law has not advanced the cause of peace,” Pompeo says in the draft. “The hard truth is that there will never be a judicial resolution to the conflict, and arguments about who is right and who is wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace.”

The failure of U.S. policy here has been to call settlements illegal but then do nothing about their ongoing expansion. If the U.S. had taken its own position seriously decades ago, it is possible that there would be a better basis for a negotiated settlement. As things stand now, the U.S. has allowed Israel to establish “facts on the ground” to their advantage and now the Trump administration is approving of the results. It does matter “who is right and who is wrong” with respect to international law. Pompeo plays the relativist here because he knows that the Israelis are the ones in the wrong on this issue, and he and the president want to give them a free pass. There is an overwhelming international consensus on the illegality of the settlements, and the Trump administration is determined to put the U.S. on the wrong side:

The 1978 legal opinion on settlements is known as the Hansell Memorandum. It had been the basis for more than 40 years of carefully worded U.S. opposition to settlement construction that had varied in its tone and strength depending on the president’s position.

The international community overwhelmingly considers the settlements illegal. This is based in part on the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bars an occupying power from transferring parts of its own civilian population to occupied territory.

Needless to say, reflexively backing Israel at all times has not advanced the cause of peace, and the continued expropriation of Palestinian land certainly doesn’t advance the cause of peace, but then they were never intended to.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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