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The US quietly makes major shift on Israel-Palestine policy

An obscure new agreement on scientific cooperation with Israel suggests the US is now willing to recognize Israeli West Bank annexation.

Analysis | Middle East

When the United Arab Emirates announced its intention to normalize relations with Israel, they justified the decision — which was highly unpopular in the Arab world — in part by claiming that in exchange for normalization, Israel had agreed to shelve their plans to annex much of the territory of the West Bank. Critics argued that annexation was an ongoing process, and that settlement expansion and incorporation of that infrastructure into Israel was continuing, so it wasn’t much of a concession on Israel’s part.

This week, the United States and Israel proved those critics correct when they announced revisions to agreements governing scientific cooperation.

In the 1970s, the United States and Israel jointly founded the Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation, the Binational Science Foundation, and the Binational Agricultural Research and Development Foundation. The founding agreements of all three stipulated that the institutions would only fund work inside of Israel’s recognized international borders, the so-called “Green Line,” established at the armistice of Israel’s War of Independence in 1949.

Through the years, the agreements have been revised, but the Green Line stipulation has held, through the many changes in the Israeli government and through every American administration, Democratic and Republican. All of that came to an end with this announcement.

The decision itself seems trivial on the surface. The three binational foundations can now fund research and projects taking place anywhere in the West Bank and Golan Heights. No Palestinian homes are demolished because of this change, no settlement expanded, no one shot or imprisoned. So what makes this such a significant development?

The revision of these agreements marks a dramatic shift in U.S. policy toward the West Bank and the Golan Heights. For the latter, it is the logical extension of the Trump administration’s 2019 recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan, the Syrian territory Israel occupied in 1967.

As many warned at the time, that decision set a precedent for U.S. recognition of Israeli annexation of the West Bank. While the current policy shift is not quite tantamount to full recognition — which would be a difficult step since Israel has not yet made an official decision to formally annex the West Bank, aside from its annexation of East Jerusalem, which remains universally rejected — it is a major step in the direction of recognizing the West Bank as part of Israel.

Supporters of Israel in the United States have been pushing hard for years to get the government to treat the occupied West Bank as part of Israel. They have railed against regulations which distinguish between businesses in West Bank colonies and Israel proper. They have supported Israeli measures which blur the distinction between the settlements and Israel, and have accused other governments of discrimination for observing that distinction.

Now, the Trump administration has given the settlement movement the victory it has long sought.

Why now?

The timing of this move is interesting. Many have speculated that the Trump administration’s recent showering of gifts on Israel is motivated by electoral concerns. That might be true for the pressure on Arab states to quickly normalize relations with Israel, but it seems unlikely to be the case with these latest moves.

While keen observers of this issue will understand the significance of these agreements, most voters in the United States will not. It is certainly not akin to the splashy, if disingenuous, declarations of breakthroughs for peace that accompanied normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab states recently.

Indeed, the changes announced this week have had little impact on the news cycle, nor does it seem like anyone in the Trump administration wanted it to. The U.S. Embassy in Israel refused to comment on the matter when asked. The announcement came from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, and Netanyahu was accompanied at the signing ceremony by U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a long-time, zealous supporter of the settlement movement in Israel.

The timing of another development might explain why this is happening now.

On Wednesday, a Trump administration official confirmed that the State Department was reversing long-standing policy and allowing U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem to list “Israel” as the country of birth listed on their passport.

Because Jerusalem is considered by most of the world an international city whose final status can only be resolved by an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, the global practice has long been to treat the entire city as an international zone. But Trump shattered that tradition by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.

The question of U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem has been a point of contention for years. As recently as 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that, since the president had the exclusive power to recognize foreign nations, he could decide whether or not to recognize the disputed city as part of Israel. In that case, the parents of a U.S. citizen, Menachem Zivotofsky, claimed that since Congress had passed a law specifically permitting a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem to list Israel as their country of birth on their passport, they should be able to do so. The Court disagreed, and sided with the administration of Barack Obama, which had no desire to aggravate the touchy issue of Jerusalem’s status.

In 2018, the State Department reaffirmed this policy. Doubtless, this was motivated by a desire to minimize the backlash against the embassy relocation and recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital from the U.S.’s Arab allies.

But now that time may be running out on this administration, it seems that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a devout Christian Zionist whose religious beliefs unabashedly inform his approach to U.S. policy toward Israel, wants to ensure that long-standing American ambiguities designed to leave space for diplomacy are resolved according to the extreme views he shares with Vice President Mike Pence, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and are at least espoused by Trump.  

These policy shifts will enable Israel to pursue all the business, research, building, and infrastructure development — which means connecting that infrastructure to Israel proper — it desires with no fear of claims by American groups and individuals who are trying to save a two-state solution or are advocating for Palestinian rights.

Europe will likely maintain its distinction between Israel and the occupied West Bank, but they will now do so in the face of explicit, and potentially expanding, U.S. policy which treats Israel and the West Bank as a single territorial unit. That’s a profound shift.

These changes will be hard to reverse, given the enormous support they are likely to win from a range of groups. AIPAC has had little sway in the Trump administration, but they will surely offer strong support for these changes, joining with more radical groups like Christians United for Israel and the Zionist Organization of America. Especially with the many crises that are likely to engulf the United States for the coming year, that kind of support for policy changes that are likely to have at least some bipartisan support is likely to make the changes irreversible for quite a long time, wherever the political winds blow.

Photo: Zvonimir Atletic via shutterstock.com
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