Pompeo’s Settlement Statement: Facts on the Ground

November 18, 2019
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (Photo by Laszlo Balogh/Getty images)

The Bluff

Note the double negative in the statement by Secretary of State Mile Pompeo: “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law”. Pompeo did not say that establishing settlement is consistent with international law. He said it is not inconsistent. And more importantly he said it does not matter. That is, international law does not matter. In. fact, I’d argue that his most important observation was the following sentence: “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.”

Are settlements illegal? Thoughtful people can have a sincere debate about that.

Can there be a judicial resolution to the conflict? There can be no serious debate about that.

This means that Pompeo’s most important observation is plainly true. International law has no practical meaning in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and one could legitimately wonder if it has any meaning anywhere). Inserting it into the conversation is a disruption. Inserting it into the conversation is a manipulation. It is a tactic aimed at presenting Israel as a pariah state, a state guilty of criminality.

We should thank Secretary Pompeo and the Trump administration for calling this bluff.


The Settlements

When Pompeo said that settlements were not illegal, he did not say that they were not damaging to the cause of peace. He did not say they were not stupid. Again, this is less a statement on the settlements, and more a statement on the role and the limitations of international law.

The settlements are a separate issue. As Pompeo said, they create new realities on the ground. They create realities that some people see as disastrous. True, international law is irrelevant to talking about the settlements. And yet, we need to talk about the settlements, the strategy behind them, their advantages and disadvantages. We still need to talk about an area in which millions live under Israel’s control without having full political rights. We still need to consider the options for Israel as it moves forward, mixing settlers and Palestinians in ways that could make separation complicated, if not impossible.


The Timing

A few days ago, the European Union’s top court ruled that European countries must label products made in Israeli settlements. Pompeo’s declaration is a clear and immediate rebuff of this unwise decision by the court. Again, it is calling a bluff: this is not a judicial decision based on law, it is a political decision expressing Europe’s opposition to settlement activity.

So, the timing is important, but Israel will still have to deal with a European Union – its largest business partner – whose policy is to use international law as an excuse for labeling products made by Jews who live in a certain, disputed area.

Timing is also important because Israel is in the midst of a nutty political process. And Pompeo’s statement – on the heels of last week’s Gaza eruption – make a coalition supported by the Arab Party seem less viable. The leader of Blue and White, Benny Gantz, responded favorably to the U.S. change of policy. The leaders of the Arab bloc are furious. In other words, Pompeo added another wedge to the many wedges that separate Gantz and the Arabs, and made a coalition headed by him and supported by them, seem unrealistic (if not impossible).


The Response

Europe disagrees with the Trump administration. This was to be expected.

The Palestinians are unhappy. That’s natural.

Most Jewish organizations meekly support the statement (AIPAC), or strongly oppose it (Reform rabbis). Unfortunate, and yet predictable.

Democratic presidential candidates disagree with the Trump administration. “The Trump administration’s statement on West Bank settlements is not only a significant step backward in our efforts to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is the latest in a pattern of destructive decisions that harm our national interests,” said Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. That’s important because of simple truth: The Trump administration altered a position that can be altered back. In other words, should Sanders, Biden, Warren or Buttigieg enter the Oval Office, they can conceivably restore the “settlements illegal” policy.

And yet, unlike statements, some facts on the ground are not easy to undo. When the US embassy was moved to Jerusalem, Democratic candidates were unhappy, but it’s unlikely that any of them would attempt to move the embassy back to Tel Aviv. With settlement activity they will have a similar problem: What Israel decides to build under a Trump umbrella will add “facts on the ground” to the statement. Reversing the statement will be possible, evacuating these settlements much more difficult.


Syria Situation: To understand the situation on the Israel-Syria border (rockets, Iron Dome activated, reports on recent attacks), listed to Rosner’s Podcast with Prof. Eyal Zisser, a leading expert on Israel-Syria relations. It is here.


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