On Monday, Nov. 18, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a pivotal statement about Israel’s settlements in the West Bank: “After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate, the United States has concluded that the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.”
Since the Carter Administration’s initial decision on this issue in 1978, the United States has virtually always held the opposite viewpoint, considering the settlements to be “illegitimate.” A notable exception to this was during the Reagan Administration, which stated that the settlements were not “inherently illegal.” Pompeo has aligned the Trump administration with Reagan’s view, a very sharp turn from the position of the Obama administration, which was even more opposed to the settlements than previous administrations. Considering the settlements “illegitimate” but not explicitly “illegal” allowed the U.S. to veto UN resolutions that aimed to end “illegal” Israeli settlements. This in turn allowed the U.S. to keep international legal proceedings at a stalemate, but the Obama administration broke this tradition by allowing a UN resolution of this kind to pass without a veto.
The issue of Israel’s West Bank settlements has long been a point of contention between Israelis and Palestinians. These settlements are made up of 140 communities, which include about 600,000 Jews. They are positioned on land that Israel has occupied since the 1967 Middle East War. The Palestinians have called for the removal of these settlements for years, as their presence in the West Bank makes the creation of an independent Palestinian state nearly impossible.
So, what dominos will fall as a result of Pompeo’s statement? Pompeo noted that it could help advance talks of peace by allowing Israel and the Palestinians to work out a resolution on their own terms without international legislative roadblocks holding them back, stating that “calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law hasn’t worked. It hasn’t advanced the cause of peace.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was appreciative of the change in U.S. policy, stating that it “rights a historical wrong,” but chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was concerned that the decision might replace international law with “the law of the jungle.”
In line with Erekat’s view, the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Foreign Affairs attributed a number of hate crimes committed by members of Israeli settlements in the West Bank on Friday, Nov. 23 to Pompeo’s statement. The Palestinian Authority stated that it intends to hold the Israeli government “fully responsible for these attacks and their consequences.”
In a broader sense, Pompeo is likely correct that the change in U.S. attitude towards the settlements will make it easier for Israel and the Palestinians to work towards a resolution to the decades-old conflict as the UN is no longer united against the Israeli settlements due to the United States’ viewpoint. However, it also means that the two parties will probably arrive at this resolution independently without input from other nations, yielding a result that will likely favor Israel since they are considered the much stronger party in the conflict. There has already been a great increase in settlement expansion and planning since the beginning of the Trump administration in 2017, and this statement will certainly empower the groups who wish to continue to construct and officially annex the West Bank. Some Palestinian analysts believe that the continued existence of the settlements has effectively ruined any chance of a two-state solution.
The fallout of Pompeo’s statement certainly bears watching over the next few months, as it may result in significant movement towards a resolution of the Israeli settlement issue—for better or worse. However, even without the weight of international law keeping positive discourse stuck in the mud as United Nations rulings did during the Obama administration, the sheer ideological differences between the two sides is a lot to overcome. Whether or not true progress can be made remains to be seen.