The secretary of state’s announcement that the US no longer considers Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land to be illegal is appalling. It is also the dismal culmination of the Trump administration’s record.
Washington has done all it can to aid Israel’s rightwing government, punish Palestinians and bury the two-state solution: moving its embassy to Jerusalem, ending funding to the UN Palestinian refugee agency, and recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
While David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, and others have a deep ideological commitment to these measures, the administration has done these things primarily to boost the prospects of Benjamin Netanyahu and bolster Donald Trump’s support among evangelicals. Mr Netanyahu is clinging on to power, as his rival Benny Gantz – who has also welcomed the US decision – struggles to form a rival government. Yet another Israeli election, the third in less than a year, looks highly likely, and the attorney general’s decision on whether to indict Mr Netanyahu on corruption charges is expected within days. In the US, Mr Trump surely welcomes a diversion from the impeachment hearings.
This measure is the latest of the administration’s efforts to destroy the international rules-based order. The declaration is symbolic rather than practical. The settlements remain illegal; Mr Trump’s fiat does not change international law. Nor does the purported rationale, that condemning them as illegal has not brought peace. As Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal pro-Israel lobby group J Street, tweeted: “Doing it for 52 years doesn’t make it legal, it makes it worse.”
It is true that settlements have flourished regardless of international strictures, and that previous US governments have done little more than scold. Settlements grew exponentially while Barack Obama was president. But the US eventually grew so exasperated that it allowed through a UN security council resolution demanding a halt to all construction in the occupied territories, rather than veto it, and John Kerry made a blistering attack on Mr Netanyahu’s government.
The administration has not only broken with decades of policy but with most allies. The European Union was quick to reaffirm that all settlement activity is illegal, that it erodes the viability of the two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace, and that it should be ended. Democratic presidential candidates were quick to attack the announcement, with Elizabeth Warren pledging to reverse it. Her rivals should make sure that Israel is in no doubt about their positions.
The predictability of this announcement makes it more disgraceful, not less. It does not merely recognise the facts on the ground, as Mike Pompeo claimed. It encourages further expansion and annexation, as the welcome from pro-settlement politicians and campaigners has demonstrated. To claim, as Mr Pompeo has done, that it increases the likelihood of a peace deal is an Orwellian use of language. The US appears to be abandoning all pretence of acting as a broker. But if it really wishes to face the facts, it should acknowledge that a single state will not be both Jewish and democratic.