Analysis

After Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, the Latest Trump Statement Isn't Going to Make Settlements Legal

With both Trump and Netanyahu facing political troubles at home, timing of U.S. policy shift is surprising, as Secretary Pompeo insists all his administration is trying to do is 'advance peace'

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces that the Trump administration does not consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank a violation of international law, Washington, November 18, 2019.
AFP

After slashing the budgets of the Palestinian Authority and the UNRWA – the United Nations' agency to aid Palestinian refugees, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the Golan Heights as Israeli sovereign territory, there was only one card left up the American sleeve – and the Trump administration decided to generously draw it now: An announcement that the settlements in the West Bank are not necessarily “illegal” in the eyes of the United States, contradicting international law.

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And just like the announcement concerning Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights – and even more so because of the ramifications for the Palestinians, mainly in Area C – this latest declaration is also largely a symbolic and emotional, at least for now.

The situation on the ground will not change overnight, nor will the international law shift just because the U.S. decided it no longer recognizes it. On the governmental level, some actual changes beyond the State Department’s festive declarations – budgeting, for example – will require the Congress' approval.

As opposed to similar past events, the European community was quick to clarify its position – only minutes, not days, after the announcement.

An Israeli machinery removes trees near a Jewish settlement in Hebron, February 21, 2018.
MUSSA ISSA QAWASMA/ REUTERS

As in the case of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and the recent UN vote on renewing UNRWA’s mandate, it seems the Israeli and U.S. governments are united, but the rest of the world – including Israel's new "friends" in Eastern and Central Europe, Russia, Asia and Africa – are still united against the move.

What is indeed surprising – more than the decision itself, which is in accordance to U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy so far – is the timing. Sources close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say he has been “dealing with the subject for several months” and that “the decision was made in coordination with the National Security Council and the attorney general.” These sources hint that the timing is meant to aid Netanyahu in forming a right-wing government amid the deadlock with Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz.

But American sources say that the most significant pressure on the matter came from Trump’s evangelical supporters, who wanted to use the administration’s opposition to a decision by the top European court to enforce labeling West Bank goods in order to advance their years-old policy advocating for the recognition of Israeli settlements as legal. This policy was also pushed by them within the Republican Party.

By these claims, it is not Netanyahu’s political situation that has led to the timing decision, but Trump’s political standing; he sees Christian evangelicals as an integral part of his support base in the upcoming elections, and it is that same force that pushed for the other decisions the administration has made over the past several years vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinians.

In his rather brief speech, Pompeo reiterated another trend characterizing the current administration’s position: The policy shift itself is not meant to impact the negotiations between the two sides. They will, supposedly, agree on their own what their position is on settlements when a final agreement is negotiated. The justification for this current step, according to the administration, is to help “advance peace” given that the previous administration’s policy against the settlements did not bring peace any closer.

If Netanyahu and Trump both remain in office, the burden of proof will be on them: So far, recognizing Jerusalem and the Golan Heights did not exactly bring Israelis and Palestinians any closer to peace.