Pompeo’s Settlement Statement: Facts on the Ground

November 19, 2019
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives for a brief photo opportunity before a meeting with Republic of Cyprus Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides at the U.S. Department of State on November 18, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Bluff

Note the double negative in the statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.” Pompeo didn’t say that establishing settlements 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 Pompeo and President Donald Trump’s administration calling this bluff. 

The Settlements

When Pompeo said that settlements weren’t illegal, he didn’t say that they weren’t damaging to the goal of peace. He didn’t say they weren’t ill-advised. This is less of a statement about the settlements than it is about 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 in discussing the settlements. And yet, we need to discuss the settlements, the strategy behind them, their advantages and disadvantages. We still need to discuss 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 still will have to deal with a European Union — its largest business partner — whose policy is to use international law as a justification for labeling products made by Jews who live in a 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 the Blue and White Party, Benny Gantz, responded favorably to the U.S. policy change. 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 make 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 (the Reform movement). Unfortunate but 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,” Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said. That’s important because of simple truth: The Trump administration altered a position that can be reversed. In other words, if Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren or Buttigieg enter the Oval Office, they can easily return to the “settlements are illegal” policy. 

And yet, unlike statements, some facts on the ground are not easy to undo. When the American 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 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.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain.

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