US abandons international consensus over West Bank annexation
The idea of a Palestinian state has fallen on hard times. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation and Hamas are locked in a race to the bottom. In the West Bank, Israel has permanently moved more than 600,000 settlers into lands Palestinians consider vital to their national aspirations.
Palestinian statehood is endangered but it is also viewed as self-evident. Short are the memories of those who have forgotten that the option of Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza has had a relatively short historical life.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the father of the Oslo Accords, never uttered the words “Palestinian state.” Only in 2000, during the presidency of Bill Clinton, did the option become a foundation, albeit short-lived, for US-led diplomacy.
During this period Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in his famous Bar Ilan 2009 speech, declared acceptance of the concept of Palestinian statehood. The Obama administration forced this move but Washington was unable to leverage it onto a peace agreement based on the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
US President Donald Trump has a different vision, at once religious and practical.
“Israel has one secret weapon that not too many countries have” said US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at a gala marking the first anniversary of the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. “Israel is on the side of God and we don’t underestimate that.”
When God is not enough, Trump defers to the staying power of Israeli “facts on the ground,” the foremost of which are the more than 200 settlements and 600,000 settlers controlling the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
For Trump, the verdict of the ages, now sanctified by God, is firmly against the Palestinians. Friedman declared that “the US Embassy in Jerusalem stands for the truth, the bedrock of all successful policies.”
“Moving our embassy,” described by Friedman as Jerusalem’s newest “shrine,” places the United States “firmly on the right side of history,” he said.
Before the announcement of Washington’s “Deal of the Century,” the ground is being prepared in Israel, and so it seems in Washington, to take advantage of the Trump administration’s disavowal of its commitment to a Palestinian state to annex all West Bank settlements.
Washington has been encouraged to think in these terms because of what it considers the mild response to its Jerusalem and Golan moves.
Netanyahu has taken the pulse of the new, accommodating look in US policy. “I told President Trump that I am not ready to move even one [settler] person,” he declared in a recent Israeli TV channel 13 interview
As elements of the “Deal of the Century” begin to appear, the signs in Israel of a political and practical demarche to annex the West Bank grow. Netanyahu has increased Israel’s spending on settlements, while, thanks to Trump, proposals for formal annexation of settlements are at the centre of Israel’s domestic political agenda.
“We have to take advantage of this window of opportunity during the Trump administration in the wake of the transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem and the recognition of the Golan Heights. Now it is time for sovereignty in Judea and Samaria,” suggested one settlement leader.
A report on Israeli television noted that “the Americans will not oppose Israeli steps relating to the settlements.” While the United States will not endorse the formal “extension of Israeli sovereignty” to the settlements, or their “annexation,” the report said, it will not object to the “extension of Israeli law” to the settlements.
The nuanced distinctions between these options add credibility to such revelations. The report noted that were Israel to extend Israeli law to all the settlements, the United States “won’t oppose, or will be OK with, or won’t make a fuss about” such a move.
Netanyahu is expected to go ahead with just such a process, the report noted.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is planning a diplomatic offensive to counter Netanyahu. He is sending delegations on an international tour to mobilise support for the internationally recognised terms of diplomatic engagement rejected by Trump and Netanyahu.
Arab leaders such as Lebanese President Michel Aoun are warning that “if half a million Palestinian refugees and 1.6 million Syrian displaced remain in Lebanon, Lebanon will cease to exist because its special demography will completely change.”
Yet all signs point to a continuation of the momentum by Israel, with Washington’s support, to move US policy to, in Friedman’s words, “the right side of history.” And in doing so abandon the international consensus established over the last generation in favour of the Palestinian territories’ permanent occupation and relentless Israeli settlement.