It’s Open Season on Land Theft

A general view of the Israeli settlement of Efrat near the Palestinian city of Bethlehem south of Jerusalem, in the occupied West Bank, November 19, 2019.

The key sentence in U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement, which cloaked the West Bank settlement project in legality, is in the words “the conclusion that we will no longer recognize Israeli settlements as per se inconsistent with international law is based on the unique facts, history and circumstances presented by the establishment of civilian settlements in the West Bank.”

More than the actual assertion that President Donald Trump’s administration does not see the settlements as a violation of international law, the reliance on “the unique facts, history and circumstances” as a pretext to legitimize them must sicken the people who still believe in diplomatic processes in general and the peace process in particular.

The meaning of this policy is that any country, be it Russia, China, Iran or even the United States itself, can create “unique facts” and new “circumstances” in any area it wants, and if they hold that area long enough, they can enjoy legal status there.

Pompeo himself realized the danger in such an interpretation, and hastened to add that the decision on the settlements does not set a precedent and should not lead to legal conclusions elsewhere in the world.

That is, the American decision means that Israel is allowed to do what the rest of the world is not.

Indeed, Israel’s position as never been so unique. The American government has gone so far as to base its reasoning on the Israeli courts, which legitimized some settlements while determining that others are “inconsistent with the law.” Pompeo does not weigh in on the legality of specific settlements – he leaves that to the Israeli courts.

He “makes do” with a sweeping statement regarding all of them, and this give the Israeli justice system permission to choose between the American interpretation and any other interpretation while neutralizing legal and public debate over the claim that Israel could be penalized if it continues to create more settlements or doesn’t uproot them.

But how can the Israeli justice system determine the legality of some of the settlements if all of them are legal in terms of international law? Today a legal objection still limits the establishment of settlements on land that is not under private Palestinian ownership, but if the settlement project as a whole is legal in the view of the United States, only Israeli law will determine what is legal and what is not, and the law can be molded like putty.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens as President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet at the White House, November 13, 2019, in Washington.
Patrick Semansky,AP

Moreover, in not expressing an opinion regarding specific settlements (he does not differentiate between settlements and outposts, legal and illegal), Pompeo also erases the term “settlement blocs” from the diplomatic lexicon. Because if all the settlements are consistent with international law, there is no basis to differentiate between consensus blocs and those beyond the consensus.

That is, even the theoretical distinction that created consensus on possible lines of withdrawal from the West Bank, and in the past served as a basis for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, has been erased from the map. It’s open season on land theft for everyone.

With the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, and now with the settlements removed from the purview of international law, the American government has turned the occupation into an internal Israeli affair in which the United States (and the rest of the world, according to this position) has no reason to interfere.

Pompeo was right when he said that defining the establishment of settlements as contradictory to international law “hasn’t advanced the cause of peace.” But the concern over the American and international response, even if the response remains a mere threat, has always stopped uncontrollable erosion, especially in the face of the right wing’s demand to annex the territories. Now that threat has also disappeared.

Trump has only one more move before he reaches the bottom of the barrel of gifts for Netanyahu – to announce that there is no occupation and there never was one. But he should hurry, before he is impeached by Congress.