Since the advent of Donald Trump to the White House, the United States has perhaps been the most unpredictable state in the international arena. This presidency is marked by breaking away from long-standing consensus positions, such as the targeting of NATO or throwing weight behind notorious dictators.
Under this political backdrop, it should not have been surprising when Secretary Mike Pompeo announced that the United States no longer views Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories illegal.
“After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate, this administration agrees… (the) establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law,” he said.
The statement signified a shift from the country’s 40-year old position when the State Department in 1978 gave a legal opinion on settlements, calling them “inconsistent with international law”.
Unsurprisingly, the move was hailed by Israeli leadership including Benjamin Netanyahu and the other prime ministerial contender, Benny Gantz, with the former saying it “rights a historical wrong”. On the other side of the border, Palestinians were disappointed as usual with President Mahmoud Abbas’s spokesperson commenting that the US is “not qualified or authorised to cancel the resolutions of international law, and has no right to grant legality to any Israeli settlement.”
This wasn’t the first time in recent history where the US has changed its status quo to adopt a completely pro-Israeli policy. It started with Trump tweeting that America now recognises Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state and announced to shift the US embassy from Tel Aviv. Not too long after, he gave a green signal to Israeli sovereignty over occupied Golan Heights.
Legality under international law
The issue of settlements has been a key point of contention in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with international consensus largely against it. As per Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” It also prohibits the “individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory”.
The opinion of the United Nations is not much different and the multilateral body has reaffirmed many a time that settlements are illegal, most recently in 2016 through Security Council Resolution 2334, when it called them a “flagrant violation” of international law which has no “legal validity”.
Similarly, the European Union was quick to clarify its stance, with Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini recorded as saying “The EU calls on Israel to end all settlement activity, in line with its obligations as an occupying power.”
Irreversible or not?
One question that arises after this latest decision is its permanence since the move is a product of an unpredictable Trump administration which has often tried to break away with consistent positions, rather than a shift in the policy of the State Department.
If one of the many contenders currently competing for the presidential elections, there might be a reversal of this decision, perhaps among many others. Though that heavily depends on partisan lines with Republicans generally more likely to favour Israel.
Take the former Vice President Joe Biden, who condemned the decision in his statement that said: “This decision harms the cause of diplomacy, takes us further away from the hope of a two-state solution, and will only further inflame tensions in the region.”
The other two main Democratic candidates were even fiercer in their responses with Bernie Sanders tweeting “Israeli settlements in occupied territory are illegal. This is clear from international law and multiple United Nations resolutions. Once again, Mr. Trump is isolating the United States and undermining diplomacy by pandering to his extremist base.”
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren unambiguously mentioned reversing this move on her Twitter: “Another blatantly ideological attempt by the Trump administration to distract from its failures in the region. Not only do these settlements violate international law—they make peace harder to achieve. As president, I will reverse this policy and pursue a two-state solution.”
What about the two-state solution?
For decades, the international community had largely ignored the issue of settlements even if they condemned it in principle primarily because Israel was successful in convincing them that any solution would come through negotiations, with US backing arguing and lobbying the same.
The consensus position according to international law assumes the temporary nature of settlements, but the latest moves unilaterally seeks to change that. This fact might not sit too well with other major powers, who had until now mostly shied away from recognising the Palestinian state since it was to be done through UN or other multilateral channel.
But if the US willing to completely disregard international law, as well as the view of the global community, then they too might not be very considerate in abiding by the old consensus. Moreover, blows after blows to the two-state solution by its key architect itself may finally push Palestinians to give up the idea of peace altogether.