Trump Gives Netanyahu a Free Hand in the West Bank

Zev Chafets

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In 12 simple words, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has dramatically changed the shape of the U.S. policy toward the West Bank. “The Trump administration is reversing the Obama administration’s approach towards Israeli settlements.”

Some Israeli right-wingers are cheering this approach as big step toward the annexation of the West Bank, where Israel has rejected UN rulings that it is an occupier. It is not quite that, but it marks an historic change in U.S. policy that has favored a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In 1978, the administration of President Jimmy Carter adopted this solution. It declared Israeli settlements there to be illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace. While successive U.S. governments used different language to couch their opposition to settlements, the Trump administration has retracted these basic principles. “There will never be a judicial resolution to the conflict” Pompeo said. “Arguments about who is right and wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace.” Only a deal between the two parties can do that.   

QuicktakeIsraeli Settlements

This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s adviser on Israel, made a similar statement at a UN Security Council meeting in May. It was a trial balloon that elicited the usual dissent by European Union ambassadors and other pro-Palestinian diplomats. Pompeo, having watched the relatively minor international fallout, has now made it official. 

This more or less ratifies reality. Despite U.S. objections, hundreds of thousands of Jews already live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In the absence of American pushback, these settlements will grow quickly and spread widely. They could reach areas marked as “Palestinian” under the now defunct Oslo Accords. If that happens, it could well lead to a violent reaction.   

The Palestinian Authority is naturally distraught by this prospect. It has maintained a boycott on talks with Israel and relied on the support of the international community. Palestinian Authority leaders have long rested their case on what they regard as the self-evident legality and justice of the demand for an independent state in the West Bank. The United Nations regards the settlements to be illegal, but both Israel and the U.S., with good reason, view UN institutions as biased on Israel. The U.S. now openly rejects the Palestinian premise. “International law does not compel a particular outcome,” says Pompeo.

Not only that, he argues, the Palestinians do not have better claim than Israel to the territory. Its presence in the West Bank (which the U.S. now calls Judea and Samaria) is justified by “unique facts, history and circumstances.”  This is a repudiation of 50 years of Palestinian diplomacy.  

Once, the Palestinians had allies on the Israeli center-left, liberals who wanted to stop settlement and prevent annexation. This was Labor Party doctrine under Shimon Peres. The West Bank, he argued, would threaten Israel’s Jewish majority.  But the theoretical dangers of demography have not withstood the trauma of the Arafat-led intifada of the early 21st century, or the ongoing terrorism that has followed the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

These days, domestic Israeli support for a Palestinian state in the West Bank has been reduced to the fringe Jewish left and a majority of the Arab community. You don’t have to be a Likudnik to oppose a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Benny Gantz, the leader of the center-left Blue and White Party, issued a clear amen to Pompeo’s announcement.

It is widely believed that the Pompeo announcement, which comes during tense coalition talks in Israel, is aimed at helping Prime Minister Netanyahu stay in power. Trump has made similar interventions in two previous elections. But Netanyahu is expecting criminal indictments in the next few weeks, and it is possible that no amount of help from his friends in Washington will do him any good.

But no matter what happens to Netanyahu, the next Israeli government will engage in settlement as a means of frustrating a second state west of the Jordan River. And it will do so with the blessing of the United States. Secretary Pompeo says that his newly announced change of policy does not mean that the U.S. will prejudge the final status of the West Bank. In fact, it does just that. Trump’s Deal of the Century may never be formally presented but its essence is in the Pompeo announcement. “We encourage both sides to find a solution that promotes, protects the security and welfare of Palestinians and Israelis alike,” the Secretary says.

In other words, the Palestinian Authority is now on its own. Its interests won’t be protected by international tribunals -- legal authority, as far as Washington is concerned, is vested in Israeli courts. UN declarations and EU condemnations will bounce off Israel as they always have. There is an obvious danger, however, that Palestinian frustration could bubble over; if that happens, Israel is well-prepared. Indeed, the U.S. has issued a travel warning to American citizens, similar to the ones issued after the Golan annexation decision and the move of the embassy to Jerusalem.  

Under the circumstances, Palestinian leaders have a hard choice to make. They can wait and pray for the demise of the Trump administration and hope Pompeo’s stance will be reversed. Or they can end their diplomatic boycott, come to the table and extract substantial American economic aid, influence over the settlement map and limited autonomy. They may not like it, but for now, U.S. policy gives Israel the right to choose what parts of the West Bank it wants to keep.

To contact the author of this story: Zev Chafets at zchafets@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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