The intervention will have no immediate effect on the ground but will delight evangelical American voters and may have harmful consequences.
By Staff | The Economist | Nov 19, 2019
[I]t 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.
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 recognizing 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.