Analysis |

A Week to Election, Israel, U.S. Make Play at Legitimizing Settlements Before It May Be Too Late

The deal expanding U.S. scientific cooperation to the West Bank settlements suggests that Netanyahu and Adelson are not relying on a miracle on November 3

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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U.S Ambassador to Israel David Friedman looks on as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony at Ariel University, October 28, 2020.
U.S Ambassador to Israel David Friedman looks on as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony at Ariel University, October 28, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

A common saying in Judaism is: “We don’t rely on miracles.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S Ambassador to Israel David Friedman know it even better than most people. For four years they have been creating a long list of their own miracles that were all made possible for them thanks to he who sits on high in the White House.

So about a week before the most crucial election in the history of the United States, and maybe the world, the two have hurried to safeguard in ink what may be the very last opportunistic grab in the settlements – just in case the Trump administration episode nonetheless soon reaches its end. Because you don’t rely on a miracle to keep him in office.

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Revoking the U.S. ban on scientific cooperation in the territories has been on the burner for over a year, back when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the West Bank settlements were not necessarily violating international law in Washington’s eyes. The intent of the declaration was to get rid of a legal opinion by the State Department from 1978 that contradicted this, and to do so ahead of the announcement of Trump’s so-called deal of the century and other moves toward American legitimization of the settlements.

As the first practical product of Pompeo’s declaration, a plan was made at the time between Israel and the U.S. to revoke the “geographic restrictions” in three scientific cooperation agreements from the 1970s. These agreements did not include the territories Israel captured in the West Bank and Golan Heights. They funded thousands of joint projects through the years at a sum of over $1.4 billion, though the European Union funds more than this and still excludes the settlements.

It is, of course, no coincidence that this agreement was signed on the campus of Ariel University, which is, given its location in the large settlement, the biggest potential winner from the change. It is also no coincidence that behind this initiative stands another individual who does not put his trust in miracles. That is the person who has connected all the dots in the political picture of our lives today, the one who has been the biggest supporter over the years of Ariel University, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu: Sheldon Adelson. According to sources with knowledge of the matter, he was one of the main people who pushed to alter the agreements before the U.S. election next week.

A more precise look at what Friedman said at the ceremony on Wednesday tells the full story. Friedman said he asked to see copies of the agreements a few years ago, and that what he read surprised and disappointed him. “They included geographical restrictions,” he said, and were subject to “political restrictions that did not serve the goal.”

“These geographic restrictions are no longer consistent with U.S. policy,” said Friedman. “Under the Trump administration and the Pompeo Doctrine, we no longer see the communities in Judea and Samaria as necessarily being inconsistent with international law.”

Friedman is an enthusiastic supporter of the settlement enterprise, and according to his view, there is nothing inherently political in the settlements themselves – only in the opposition to them.

He added another explanation that could only be called the exact opposite of reality, in the style that only the Trump administration is capable of: In the spirit of the so-called Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the United States is placing “great value on academic, cultural, commercial and diplomatic engagement as the best path to peace, whether between Israel and its neighboring states, or between Israel and the Palestinians.” In his invented world of peace, Friedman is completely ignoring the fact that the existence of Ariel University is not cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians in any way at all – it is just the continuation of the dispossessing of the Palestinians under American patronage.

He also provided an explanation for the fact that the process took longer than what he expected – and that it suddenly came about, a week before the fear that the president might be replaced may come to fruition.

Friedman said that he began the process to change the agreements a year ago, and thought it would happen within a few weeks, but that it involved a number of departments in the administration and took time. He said he was happy that there was no opposition in principle to it at all: “And here we are in Ariel University, which would benefit directly from it.” He added that the U.S. “will still invest the funds according to professional criteria, but not according to the address. We are now depoliticizing what never should have been political.”

In other words: The United States did not object to anything for an entire year because of matters of principle, God forbid; it was only bureaucracy, and even though I am announcing that Ariel University will benefit directly from it, of course we will not discriminate in its favor in funding.

The signing of the agreements that will benefit Ariel University is clear pre-election opportunism on the part of Netanyahu, Friedman and Adelson – who are not counting on a miracle that would leave Trump in the White House. The settlements have not become legal in the eyes of international law just because Pompeo said so, the peace between Israel and the Palestinians will not blossom thanks to funding for the settlements just because Friedman said so, and that which is political from its very foundation has not undergone “de-politicization.” This is yet more more creeping de facto annexation of the settlements under the auspices of an administration that fears it will soon disappear.

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