Monday will long be remembered as a turning point in Middle East history.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement Monday that Israeli settlements are not illegal per se is the most significant shift in U.S. Middle East policy in the past generation. Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital has been a matter of U.S. law since 1996. There was little interest in Washington in recent years in pressuring Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights. But the issue of the legality of Israeli settlements has been the defining issue of much of the international discourse on Israel for a generation.
In the vast majority of cases, the discourse has revolved around the widely held allegation – with no basis in actual law – that Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria are illegal. This allegation has served as the justification for a continuous barrage of condemnations of Israel in international arena and for anti-Israel legal verdicts in international courts including the International Court of Justice at the Hague in 2004 and the European Court of Justice last week. The unsupported allegation that Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria are illegal was also the basis for UN Security Council Resolution 2234 from 2016 and is a basis of the International Criminal Court’s ongoing probes of Israelis.
Pompeo made two revolutionary assertions in his statement. First, he said that “after carefully studying all sides of the legal debate,” like the Reagan administration before it, the Trump administration has concluded, “The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.”
Second, Pompeo noted, the near ubiquitousness of the false assertion that settlements are illegal has not advanced the prospects for peace. To the contrary, it has harmed the chances of getting to peace.
In his words, “calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law has not advanced the cause of peace.”
And of course, it hasn’t. Placing a lie in the center of the discourse on the Palestinian conflict with Israel is no way to promote understanding and coexistence.
In the interest of promoting peace, Pompeo instead told the truth. Not only are Israeli settlements not illegal. Pompeo noted that they are arguably more justified than civilian settlements built in other disputed territories.
In his words, the administration’s determination “is based on the unique facts, history, and circumstances presented by the establishment of civilian settlements in the West Bank.”
That is, it is based on the historic ties of the Jewish people to Judea and Samaria. These ties lay at the heart of Jewish history and religion.
Finally, Pompeo said that the legal status of the settlements is itself irrelevant to prospects for peace. As he put it, “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. This is a complex political problem that can only be solved by negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Pompeo’s statement, and indeed the Trump administration’s decision to publish its position now represents a complete rebuke of the European Union. The EU has made its false determination that Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria are illegal the basis for its hostile, discriminatory economic and political policies towards Israel. The European Court of Justice’s verdict last week which requires EU member states to place distinct labels on Jewish-made exports from Judea, Samaria, united Jerusalem and the Golan Heights is self-evidently a bid to use a deliberate misinterpretation of international law to implement an anti-Semitic policy.
Israel’s own Foreign Ministry should take a lesson from the Trump administration. After a bitter, two year bureaucratic and political fight, in 2017 Israel’s embassies worldwide published a paper that explained the legal validity of Israel’s settlements in Judea and Samaria. But unlike the Trump administration, the Israeli government has still not stated outright that international law is irrelevant to the cause of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Pompeo’s statement is first and foremost an extraordinary gesture of support for Israel and the rights of the Jewish people on the part of President Donald Trump and his administration. But from a U.S. perspective, it also represents a key advance in Trump’s realist foreign policy.
Since taking office, Trump has worked consistently to align U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond to the world as it is, rather than to the world as “experts” imagine it to be. In the Middle East, this realignment of U.S. policy has provided the nations of the region – including Israel and the Palestinians – with the first chance of reaching genuine peace they have ever had.