Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared today that the U.S. does not regard Israeli settlements on the West Bank as illegal. He thus reversed the position taken by former Secretary of State John Kerry in the dying days of the Obama administration.
Pompeo explained that, after carefully studying the issue, he concluded that President Reagan got it right when he found that the settlements are not illegal. Reagan had reversed the position taken by the Carter administration.
Both important sides of the political divide in Israel applauded Pompeo’s decision. Prime Minister Netanyahu said:
This policy reflects an historical truth – that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria. In fact, we are called Jews because we are the people of Judea.
Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s rival for political power, also welcomed Pompeo’s announcement, though more for pragmatic reasons than historical ones. He explained that the future of Israeli settlements “should be determined by agreements that meet security requirements and promote peace,” not by dueling legal claims.
This mirrors Pompeo’s view that, although U.S. administrations since Reagan’s have considered “unrestrained settlement activity. . .an obstacle to peace, they wisely and prudently recognized that dwelling on legal positions didn’t advance peace.” (Emphasis added) Stating what should be obvious, he noted:
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 has it right, and the departure of John Kerry and Barack Obama from this wise and prudential approach is itself an obstacle to peace.
The so-called West Bank settlements include large towns just outside of Jerusalem. Israelis will never give them up. It also includes smaller settlements closer to the Jordan River that Israelis might give up if the Palestinians ever became serious about making peace.
Declaring both sets of settlements illegal makes it difficult for the U.S. to base its position on the distinction between the two sets of settlements. And, in a hypothetical world where Palestinian leaders are serious about making peace, declaring both sets of settlements illegal makes it nearly impossible for these leaders to accept the continued existence of the settlements that Israel will never abandon.
Caroline Glick views Pompeo’s statement as a diplomatic turning point. She writes:
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.
I doubt that the Palestinians have any desire for genuine peace, and therefore doubt that Pompeo’s statement will move the parties closer to such a peace. However, I agree with Glick that Pompeo’s realism (and President Trump’s) about West Bank settlements is a prerequisite for real progress in any meaningful peace process.