Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made history this week by visiting two Israeli settlements, the Psagot winery located on the outskirts of Ramallah in the heart of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and the City of David located in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan just outside Jerusalem’s Old City, the first ever such visits by a sitting American secretary of state. The visits were clearly aimed at legitimizing and normalizing Israel’s settlement enterprise, which is considered illegal under international law, in keeping with the administration’s approach of the last three years.
Palestinian officials roundly condemned Pompeo’s visit, which they said “blatantly violates international law” — which of course is precisely the point. Since recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, upending decades of U.S. policy and broad international consensus, the Trump administration has worked assiduously to eliminate international norms, including the principle of the inadmissibility of acquiring territory through force, and destroy any last vestiges of a two-state solution.
Pompeo’s latest gesture however went further than anything we’ve seen thus far and may not be easily undone. Unless the incoming Biden administration is prepared to reaffirm the centrality of international law and Palestinian rights as firmly and as explicitly as Trump has sought to eviscerate them, all of which entail a political cost, Trump’s scorched earth policies could yet succeed.
Indeed, Pompeo’s settlement tour is yet another major gift to embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been plagued by periodic protests, a looming corruption trial scheduled to start in early 2021, and the possibility of yet another election — Israel’s fourth in less than two years. Some have speculated that Pompeo may be laying the groundwork for his own presidential bid in 2024. Whatever his political ambitions, Pompeo’s gesture is consistent with other measures taken by the Trump administration, such as the recognition of Jerusalem of as Israel’s capital and the State Department’s declaration a year ago that settlements would no longer be deemed illegal, all of which are designed to upend international norms, erase Palestinian rights and political aspirations, and consolidate Israel’s permanent control of all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
With the Psagot winery as a backdrop, Pompeo used the visit an opportunity to announce even more radical shifts in U.S. policy. First, Pompeo announced that products originating from areas under the sole control of Israel, known as “Area C,” must henceforth be labelled as “Made in Israel,” including goods produced by Palestinians. In effect, this amounted to U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over all of Area C, which makes up some 60 percent of the West Bank.
At the same time, Pompeo doubled down on the administration’s stance that “anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism,” with the announcement that the U.S. government would blacklist organizations that engaged in or supported boycotts directed at either Israel or Israeli settlements. In other words, organizations — including human rights and humanitarian organizations — that choose to abide by the international legal requirement not to work with or legitimize Israeli settlements would be deemed “anti-Semitic” and denied U.S. funding.
As such, the visit also lays bare the true intent of Trump’s now obsolete “Peace to Prosperity” plan, which was never really about ending the conflict as much as about consecrating permanent Israeli occupation and the “Greater Israel” agenda to which Pompeo, U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and their fellow travelers in the administration are personally and ideologically devoted.
And this may not necessarily be the end. Given the administration’s ideological commitment to Greater Israel as well as its own denial about the results of the presidential election, the administration may have more surprises to deliver before leaving office in January. Indeed, we have already seen a major uptick in Israeli demolitions, evictions, settlement announcements and ither “facts on the ground” since November 3, as Netanyahu and his allies in the settler movement seek to capitalize on Trump’s remaining time in office.
Just this week, Israel’s Ministry of Housing and Israel Land Authority opened the bidding process for 1,257 housing units in Givat HaMatos, a new Israeli settlement strategically located between Bethlehem and Palestinian East Jerusalem. Givat HaMatos, which some have labelled a “doomsday” settlement for its lethal effect on the prospect of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state, would permanently sever the Palestinian neighborhood Beit Safafa from the rest of East Jerusalem as well prevent contiguity between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Less than two weeks earlier, on the day of the U.S. election, the Israeli army demolished the Palestinian community of Khirbet Humsa in the Jordan Valley, leaving 73 people, including 41 children, homeless, in what U.N. officials described officials as “the largest forced displacement incident in over four years.”
As a lame-duck president with little to lose, Trump may bestow even greater gifts on the embattled Israeli prime minister and his allies in the settler movement. Netanyahu is said to be pushing the U.S. administration to greenlight yet another “doomsday” settlement, known as Atarot, located between Ramallah and Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Moreover, having already secured effective U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over most of the West Bank, it is not inconceivable that formal Israeli annexation of parts of the occupied territories would be back on the table at some point before January 20.
President-elect Joe Biden has not commented on the latest moves by the Trump administration — and is unlikely to do so given the tradition of one president at a time. However, Biden has previously said he would reverse most of Trump’s policies that conflict with the goal of two states and with established international norms, including, mostly likely, by reinstating pre-Trump U.S. policies.
Therein lies the problem. Even before Trump’s arrival, U.S. policy toward Jerusalem, settlements, and other core issues of the conflict had already been severely eroded by previous U.S. administrations. Simply reinstating an ambiguous or ambivalent status quo ante is unlikely to be enough to salvage a two-state solution.
To effectively counteract Trump’s embrace of Israeli maximalism, Biden will need to be as explicit in reaffirming international norms, including the illegality of Israeli settlements, and the legitimacy of Palestinian political aspirations and rights as the Trump administration has been in eviscerating them.
This could entail a political cost for Biden, as many members of his own political party are on board with aspects of Trump policy, such as the conflating of Israeli settlements with Israel and criminalizing boycotts of Israel.
Meanwhile, recent decisions by the Palestinian Authority to resume security coordination with Israel and reform its policy of making payments to Palestinians killed or imprisoned by Israel and their families — both seen as gestures to the incoming Biden administration — could also inadvertently play into Trump’s and Netanyahu’s hands. The fact that the PA has made these gestures several months before Biden even takes office will further reduce the incentives for Biden to make the difficult choices that a genuine two-state solution requires. In which case, Trump and Pompeo’s attempts to destroy what is left of a two-state solution could yet succeed.