Trump Crushes Palestinian Hopes Again

The U.S. Middle East peace plan may be in a coma. But that hasn’t stopped Washington from handing major diplomatic victories to Israel.

A Palestinian boy sits on a chair as Israeli authorities demolish and relocate a school site
A Palestinian boy sits on a chair as Israeli authorities demolish and relocate a school site in the village of Yatta, south of the West Bank city of Hebron, on July 11, 2018. Hazem Bader/AFP via Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Monday that the United States no longer considers civilian Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands a violation of international law. The move represents a historic decision that reverses decades of U.S. policy and represents the latest in a raft of pro-Israeli moves that could effectively quash hopes for the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The conclusion that we will no longer recognize as per se inconsistent with international law is based on the unique facts, history, and circumstances prevented by the establishment of civilian settlements in the West Bank,” Pompeo told reporters on Monday. He said that the decision does not mean the U.S. government is expressing views on the legal status of any individual settlement or “prejudging the ultimate status of the West Bank.”

Pompeo’s statement rolls back a 1978 State Department opinion that formed the bedrock of U.S. legal opinion on Israeli settlements, asserting that civilian settlements in the occupied territories are “inconsistent with international law.” 

The decision marks the latest way in which the Trump administration has undercut Palestinian claims of statehood in favor of its closest historic ally in the Middle East, handing another political victory to embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he struggles to stay afloat after failing to form a coalition government.

During his first three years as president, Donald Trump has moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, forced the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington to close, and slashed funding to the United Nations agency for Palestinian relief. Separately, it recognized Israeli sovereignty over Syria’s Golan Heights, undoing a position past administrations had held for over 50 years.

“You now have a complete package of efforts to make a traditional solution … to the Israeli-Palestinian problem virtually impossible, at least for the remainder of the Trump administration,” said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former senior State Department advisor on Arab-Israeli negotiations. 

It also brings new attention to a long-awaited—and still secret—Middle East peace plan Trump tasked his son-in-law Jared Kushner with creating after he first stepped into the Oval Office. The Trump administration has faced criticism from experts and former officials for refusing to release the plan after repeated delays or heeding the advice of the administration’s senior diplomats. Late last month, the top State Department diplomat on the Middle East, Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker, revealed that he had no idea what was in Kushner’s peace plan and had not played any role in helping craft it. 

Some experts warn Pompeo’s newest decision could further erode hopes for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in absence of an alternative proposal from Kushner. “The consequences are numerous,” said Ilan Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “This is overturning 40 years of U.S. precedent for no real good reason whatsoever. It completely undercuts America’s role as an objective mediator in the conflict, if that hasn’t happened already happened.” 

Goldenberg likened it to the diplomatic version of an unfair pie-eating contest, where one competitor negotiates how to share the pie while the other is busy eating it. 

But other experts believe it could pave the way for more productive negotiations between the two sides in the future. “The Palestinians negotiated on the assumption that they were going to get all of the West Bank and Gaza back in any conceivable settlement,” said James Phillips, a senior researcher on the Middle East at the Heritage Foundation think tank. “This at least opens up the possibility that might not be true, and that therefore they would have incentive to engage in negotiations rather than sitting back and waiting for the U.S. to deliver Israel on a platter, which is basically what they’ve been doing in recent years.”

A senior Palestinian official sharply disagreed. “It comes as no surprise, but it is still outrageous,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, adding that the Trump administration has now become “a partner in crime” with Israel.

Ashrawi said the Trump administration had already forecast its intentions by acquiescing to the annexation of the West Bank, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and seeking to disenfranchise millions of Palestinian refugees. “International humanitarian law is not theirs to manipulate and to redesign to support Israeli expansion,” she added.

Even before Pompeo’s announcement on Monday, some experts pointed out, the United States had already been inching away from the 1978 State Department opinion in recent years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations. 

In February 2011, the Obama administration cast its first U.N. Security Council veto of a resolution characterizing settlement activity as illegal and a major obstacle to peace. But in doing so, Susan Rice, then-U.S. ambassador to the U.N., issued a statement insisting that its vote should not be construed as a sign of support for such activity. “On the contrary, we reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” she told the council.

In former President Barack Obama’s final month in office, his administration went further to reject Israel’s settlement policy—not quashing a Security Council resolution that condemned Israel’s settlement policy, in a historic first, but merely abstaining from it. 

The decision infuriated then-incumbent President Trump—whose advisors Michael Flynn and Kushner mounted an unsuccessful attempt to scupper the resolution before the presidential inauguration. Trump himself warned the U.N. on Twitter that “things will be different after Jan. 20th,” referring to his first day in office.

Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who served under the Obama administration, said he is concerned about the long-term impacts of the latest decision. “No U.S. administration has called Israeli settlements illegal since the Carter administration,” Shapiro said. “So, in one sense, little changes with this announcement, and it’s a kind of posturing by the secretary of state with little actual effect.

“But to the extent that this decision is seen as a green light to encourage Israeli settlement expansion it should be clear it continues Trump’s steady effort to bury the two-state solution,” Shapiro added.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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