Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken full advantage of what he views as a more propitious climate in Washington, DC under the Trump administration to embark on a massive expansion of Israel’s illegal settlement drive in the Palestinian West Bank.
Since President Trump’s inauguration, Israel has announced plans to build 5,500 additional housing units in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu has even announced his intention to construct the first new Israeli settlement to be established since the 1990’s.
Up until now, Netanyahu had every reason to believe that his agenda to colonize Palestinian land would meet with unhesitating approval from the Trump administration, whose core team on Israel—senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump’s designee to lead international negotiations Jason Greenblatt, and Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Israel David Friedman—are all staunch backers of Israeli settlements.
And after Israel’s first announcement of settlement expansion elicited no comment from the Trump White House, Netanyahu appeared vindicated in his views. But after Israel’s most recent statement, an unnamed senior White House official urged “all parties to refrain from taking unilateral actions that could undermine our ability to make progress, including settlement announcements.”
While this leak was widely interpreted as a signal that Trump is intent on putting an unexpected brake on Israel’s settlement activity, a self-contradicting statement released by the White House yesterday casts doubt on this explanation.
According to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, “the American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years,” presumably referencing the historically bipartisan US support for UN Security Council Resolution 242, which established the “land-for-peace” paradigm undergirding all Arab-Israeli negotiations since 1967. Since the Clinton administration, this has also included backing for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
However, the White House immediately undercut its claims to continuity in policy by rejecting a half-century of bipartisan positions on Israeli settlements. “We don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace,” Spicer stated definitively. Not only has the United States traditionally viewed Israeli settlements as a barrier to peace; it has also deemed them to be illegal, a position most succinctly encapsulated by the State Department’s legal adviser, who concluded in a 1978 letter to Congress that the establishment of Israeli settlements is “inconsistent with international law.”
Indeed, the illegality of Israeli settlements is an open-and-shut case under international law. The Geneva Conventions prohibit a country from transferring its citizens into territory held under its military occupation, and the International Criminal Court makes it a war crime to do so.
Making matters worse, Spicer added a feeble acknowledgment that building new settlements or expanding existing ones “may not be helpful” in achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace. As if there were any doubt that Israel’s ongoing expropriation of Palestinian land is designed to fragment Palestinians into ever-shrinking enclaves to preclude the establishment of a viable state.
At least under the Obama administration, after nearly eight years of feckless pronouncements during which Israel’s settler population grew by more than 100,000, the United States belatedly recognized that milquetoast words would not suffice to curb Israel’s colonization of Palestinian land. Only last December did the Obama administration finally take action by deciding to abstain on a UN Security Council reiterating the illegality of Israeli settlements. It also toughened its warning that Israel’s colonization of Palestinian land was “cementing an irreversible one-state reality” and creating a permanent “separate and unequal” status for Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation, in the words of former Secretary of State John Kerry.
The Trump administration’s statement is not only a repudiation of these eleventh-hour realizations by outgoing administration; it is also a radical upending of US policy opposing Israeli settlements dating back to the Johnson administration.
Spicer tried unconvincingly to make the case that despite this fundamental break with fifty years of US policy, the “Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity.” However, by staking out the claim that Israeli settlements are not an obstacle to peace and that continued settlement expansion only “may not be helpful” to advance Israeli-Palestinian talks, the Trump administration has made its official position on Israel’s colonization of Palestinian land quite clear: future Israeli announcements of settlement expansion will not only be tolerated but endorsed by the Trump administration as long as they are coordinated with the White House, and US support for Israel’s vision of a unitary state with apartheid rule over Palestinians will be assured.
Josh Ruebner is Policy Director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights and author of Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace.