Argument

U.S. Recognition of Settlements Will Harm Israel More Than It Helps

The Trump administration’s disdain for international consensus on the West Bank will encourage previously cautious governments to support BDS and Palestinian statehood.

A view of houses in the Israeli settlement of Kedumim in the West Bank.
A view of houses in the Israeli settlement of Kedumim in the West Bank on Nov. 19, 2019. Amir Levy/Getty Images

Secretary Mike Pompeo’s announcement on Monday that the United States has reversed a four-decade-old State Department legal opinion that regarded Israeli settlements in the West Bank as contravening international law was hardly surprising. If there have been two running themes to U.S. policy on Israeli-Palestinian issues under President Donald Trump, they have been supporting Israel’s unfettered territorial claims and insisting that any existing international consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not matter.

The Israeli government has consistently cheered these developments, seeing them as beneficial in the long run. But if the Trump administration’s campaign to convince the world that international consensus is meaningless succeeds, it will damage Israel in a number of ways that will far outweigh any benefit that Israel gets from Washington giving its blessing to settlement construction.

Israel has been unwavering in insisting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be resolved through negotiations between the two sides and that no solution can be imposed on the parties from the outside. The international community has accepted this formula, and while various United Nations resolutions have touched on the ultimate control of territory to the legality of settlements, no serious effort has ever been made to create a solution and enforce it through diplomacy or coercion.

But if Israel and the United States successfully argue that international consensus on these matters is irrelevant, there will be nothing left to dissuade countries from unilaterally recognizing a sovereign state of Palestine on the 1949 armistice lines—something that Israeli governments have strenuously sought to avoid.If Israel and the United States successfully argue that international consensus is irrelevant, there will be nothing left to dissuade countries from unilaterally recognizing a sovereign state of Palestine.

Israeli diplomatic efforts with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have in many respects been designed to prevent unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state and have included pressure campaigns against international bodies that accept Palestine as a member, relying on a U.S. veto in the Security Council to prevent the U.N. from admitting Palestine as a full member state, and even advocating the curtailment of foreign aid to the Palestinians if they seek to use international law as a way to gain statehood.

One of the reasons this approach has been tacitly accepted by the international community is because it has been widely understood that Israel’s de facto control in much of the West Bank is temporary. The more that Israel fully rejects this notion and seeks to cement a de jure presence through some form of annexation, the harder it is for Israel to continue arguing successfully that the world community should stick to its guns when it comes to the Palestinian approach to unilaterally declaring statehood.

This would be a diplomatic nightmare of unprecedented proportions for Israel and has largely been avoided until now, because Israel has successfully argued for an international consensus that the only path to a permanent resolution is direct negotiations between the two parties. If the new Israeli position is to declare that any policies that it or the Trump administration advances are all that matters, irrespective of what anyone else thinks, and that the fundamental realities that the rest of the world accepts can be unilaterally reversed or ignored, it will be very difficult to argue that countries that want to recognize Palestine should hold off.

Similarly, Israel has successfully relegated the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign to the fringes of far-left politics and activism. But moves intended to shatter a consensus on some issues or demonstrate that it should not exist will have unintended consequences on other issues, and BDS is one of them. Israel has rightly argued that the policy of targeting Israel with boycotts and other such actions holds Israel to a fundamentally unfair and one-sided standard, and governments outside of the Arab world have largely agreed. The more that Israel argues that its own extreme positions should be adopted by everyone, the more it opens the door for adoption of extreme positions that do not benefit Israel, including BDS.The Trump administration’s new policy is already hardening an international consensus that rejects Israel’s position.

Even for those Israelis who do believe that international consensus is important to consider and would prefer to have it on Israel’s side, the new U.S. stance on settlements will not bring the international community closer to Israel’s position. While the United States is an important international actor, it is not the only one, and the Trump administration in particular has demonstrated a talent for inadvertently marshaling unanimity in opposition to its policies rather in support of them.

The U.S. position on Jerusalem, for instance, did not result in a flood of international recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or a large-scale move of embassies from Tel Aviv, but rather ended up incentivizing other countries to reinforce their existing positions on Tel Aviv as the proper location for embassies to Israel.

In the case of Washington’s settlements announcement, there has already been public pushback not only from the predictable quarters of the U.N. but from Russia, Germany, France, and the European Union. Rather than beginning to shift international consensus on Israeli settlements and the status of the West Bank, the Trump administration’s new policy is already hardening an international consensus that rejects Israel’s position.

International consensus is a funny thing. It can be maddening to be on the wrong side of it, but it is rare to be on the wrong side of it on every issue. Israel is not in that category yet, but if it successfully chips away at the idea that what the rest of the world thinks should matter, it could soon regret having opened up the floodgates that have until now protected it on issues such as boycotts and Palestinian statehood—but that could in the future drown it in international opprobrium.

Michael J. Koplow is the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum and is on Twitter at @mkoplow.

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