US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement that the Trump administration no longer considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal, is putting the “deal of the century” into action, according to experts.
Palestinian political analyst Zaha Hassan told Al Arabiya English that the announcement is “the rolling out” of the unreleased political portion of the Trump administration’s Middle East peace proposal, named the “Deal of the Century” by US President Donald Trump.
“This is part of the rolling out of the proposal. Instead of doing it on paper, the administration is doing it in practice,” said Hassan, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who previously worked as a senior legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team.
Pompeo said in a speech at the State Department on Monday that the Trump administration, after carefully studying all sides of the legal debate, concluded the “establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.”
Hassan said Pompeo’s announcement was unsurprising, considering two previous Trump administration actions: recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights (territory seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and officially annexed from Syria in 1981) and recognizing the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Israel considers the entire city of Jerusalem its capital, while the Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
A shift in US policy?
The Trump administration position on Israeli settlements is being called a major departure from decades of US foreign policy.
However, in his remarks, Pompeo mentioned Republican President Ronald Reagan’s comment in 1981 that the settlements were not “inherently illegal.”
Former US envoy to the Middle East Ambassador Dennis Ross told Al Arabiya English Pompeo’s basic position was “actually in line” with every presidential administration since Reagan.
“Even [US President Barack] Obama did not speak of illegality [of the settlements], but of illegitimacy. The point is that the issue of settlements is going to have to be resolved at the negotiating table. It is one of the permanent status issues,” said Ross, who played a leading role in shaping US involvement in the Middle East peace process for over twelve years.
“That said, it is true that every administration viewed settlement activity as a real problem and an obstacle to peace-making. The timing will add to the difficulty of getting the hearing it says it wants for the plan,” said Ross.
Ross added that there is a clear danger “those on the Israeli right will use [Pompeo’s announcement] to annex territories” and doom any prospect of a two state solution.
Previous presidents on both sides of the aisle have tried to stem the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Former Republican President George H. W. Bush’s administration withheld funds from Israel because it would not stop building settlements. Former Democratic President Barack Obama allowed the passage of UN Resolution 2334 that called Israel’s settlements a “flagrant violation” of international law.
The announcement reverses a longstanding State Department legal opinion upon which US policy was based, until now. The opinion, issued by the State Department in 1978, concluded establishing settlements in the Palestinian territories went against international law.
The Trump administration’s revised position on settlements has been met with international criticism. The UN Human Rights office and European Union have reaffirmed their common position that Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are in breach of international law.
Critics say the Israeli settlements impinge on the land of native Arab Palestinians, depriving them of their natural rights as inhabitants of the land, and restrict the mostly rural Palestinian population from undertaking farming and other activities related to the cultivation of their land.
The Palestinian Authority on Monday slammed the position as “completely against international law.” Washington is “not qualified or authorized to cancel the resolutions of international law, and has no right to grant legality to any Israeli settlement,” Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeinah said in a statement.
Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit condemned Pompeo’s statement as “a very negative development.” He said the decision would result in “more violence and cruelty” against the Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli settlers and “undermines any possibility” of achieving peace.
While Arab states certainly do not like the announcement, it will not affect their relationships with the US, according to Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
“The announcement won’t change relations with [the Arab states] because the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not their central concern – Iran is,” said Doran.
Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) representative for Jerusalem, Bernard Sabella, told Al Arabiya English that the Trump administration “knows it will not pay any price for its decisions on settlements, Jerusalem, the Golan…accordingly it is intent to back Israel even with its illegal settlements and in contradiction to international law, Oslo Accords and international understandings.”
Sabella said that these decisions will damage the credibility of the current administration in pursuing an honest broker role in future peace negotiations.