US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference at the US Department of State on November 18, 2019 in Washington, DC. Pompeo announced that the Trump Administration does not consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank a violation of international law. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Pompeo Doctrine: Dissecting US Policy Shift on Jewish West Bank Communities (with VIDEO)

While the legality of Israeli settlements continues to be debated, analysts at Jerusalem conference focus on whether the Trump Administration’s move will usher in, or further push back, peace

The Trump Administration’s policy reversal regarding the legality of Jewish communities in the West Bank was the subject of a conference on Wednesday in Jerusalem organized by the Kohelet Policy Forum and attended by The Media Line. Washington’s recognition of the right of Israeli Jews to live across the Green Line has been dubbed “the Pompeo Doctrine” after the US’s top diplomat who made the announcement in November. The new position entailed the repudiation of a 1978 legal opinion, formulated under then-US president Jimmy Carter and known as the Hansell Memorandum, which defined Israeli settlements as “inconsistent with international law.”

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman opened the event by explaining that the Trump Administration’s decision was rooted in the belief that the Jewish people and, by extension, their lone state, has historical and legal rights to the West Bank.

Referring to the contested territory by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria, Friedman recounted the history of its status, beginning with the 1917 Balfour Declaration that committed London to create a homeland for the Jews in British-ruled Mandatory Palestine. He noted that this was codified at the 1920 San Remo conference and that during the 1967 war, the West Bank was captured by Israel from Jordan, whose sovereignty over the region was never recognized globally.

Within this context, Friedman stressed that while the dispute over the West Bank remained far from settled, the Trump Administration’s decision “finally move[d] the goalposts back onto the field.” He further emphasized that the move did not “obfuscate the very real issue that 2 million or more Palestinians reside [therein],” whom he said deserve to “live in dignity, in peace, with independence, pride and opportunity.

“We [the US] are committed to finding a way to make that happen,” Friedman concluded, “but the Pompeo Doctrine says clearly that Israelis have the right, Jews have the right, to live in Judea and Samaria, and it calls for a practical, negotiated resolution of the conflict that improves the lives of both sides.”

During his address to the attendees, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu thanked the Trump Administration for “recognizing that we [Israelis] are not foreigners in our own land. … We are not occupiers of our homeland. … We came back to this strip of land in which our forefathers lay down roots thousands of years ago.”

The prime minister forcefully insisted that “we will not let one settlement be uprooted from the land of Israel. … We are not going to expel any communities, not those of Jews nor anyone else. The whole idea of ethnic cleansing – which people speak of in terms of liberal values and human rights – is invalid. We need to take it off the table. … What happened when we evacuated settlements? Did we get peace? We got terror and rockets. We will not repeat these mistakes.”

Today, some 700,000 Israeli Jews live in the West Bank, which is claimed in its entirety – including the eastern part of Jerusalem – by the Palestinians as part of a potential state.

Netanyahu, who was visibly animated Wednesday, has stated his intention to take the matter one step further by repeatedly vowing to annex parts of the West Bank, in particular the Jordan Valley whose retention in perpetuity is widely viewed across the political and defense establishments as essential to ensuring Israel’s long-term security.

“I think as soon [as other countries] understand the commitment of President Trump and his team to the Pompeo Doctrine, to the recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, part of what countries do is to adopt [the same] policies in order to deepen their ties with the United States,” Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and currently president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told The Media Line.

“But I think we [Israelis] have to get out there on a stump, we have to clarify our [dedication] to these ideas. When the US releases its [peace] plan, assuming it reflects an appreciation of Israel’s security needs, that will be the time to make an intense global effort, in Europe, in Asia, and perhaps in certain African nations, to market the new borders that Israel hopes to finalize in any arrangement [with the Palestinians].”

The Palestinian Authority reacted with fury to Pompeo’s November announcement, describing it as an “aggression” and calling for a “day of rage” in protest. Following Wednesday’s conference, the Foreign Ministry in Ramallah doubled down, releasing a statement that the PA was in the process of preparing documentation that would be submitted to the International Criminal Court at The Hague in hopes of placing Ambassador Friedman – who was referred to as a war criminal – in the docket.

The PA has also repeatedly referenced former US president Barack Obama’s instruction to his UN envoy to abstain on, and thereby allow the passage of, Security Council Resolution 2334, which declared Israel’s establishment of settlements beyond the 1967 line a “flagrant violation” of international law, a position that most countries maintain.

“One of the central claims about the Israeli-Arab conflict is that international law – the rules the whole world has agreed to – means that Jews cannot live in those areas of Mandatory Palestine from which Jordan expelled them [following the 1948 war],” Prof. Eugene Kontorovich, head of the International Law Department at the Kohelet Policy Forum, told The Media Line on the sidelines of the conference.

“This has translated into the international community saying that settlements are illegal, but it turns out it is not the entire international community – rather, the international community minus maybe the most important country in the world,” Kontorovich said. “And as we have seen with the [Trump Administration’s December 2017] recognition of Jerusalem [as Israel’s capital], more nations are likely to follow this lead.”

Indeed, analysts near-uniformly made clear to The Media Line that the significance of the Trump Administration’s view on settlements will be determined by the tangible effects – good or bad – that it has on the peace process.

“I think peace is much more possible now that the notion that settlements are illegal has been taken off the table because the notion that the Palestinians were entitled to an area equivalent to everything that Jordan and Egypt took in 1949 … made negotiations impossible,” Prof. Kontorovich contended to The Media Line. “By making Palestinian claims detached from supposed legal entitlements, now the sides can negotiate based on reality, based on facts on the ground, based on what can actually be – not based on a unique and illiberal claim of a Jew-free state.”

When asked whether he agrees, Gilead Sher, previously a senior adviser to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Israel’s chief peace negotiator from 1999 to 2001, emphasized that this will depend on the nature of the White House’s yet-unveiled proposal. “It all depends on the broader context of this announcement by Secretary Pompeo. If it falls within a context of future negotiations and a certain process that would lead to gradual advancements toward a two-state solution, then yes, of course, it would be valuable,” he told The Media Line.

“The question of the legality or illegality of the settlements is not the most important one, which is, what will the parties agree on [regarding] the territorial partition between them? If we would like to see in the future a Jewish, democratic and secure Israel in recognized boundaries then we need to disengage from the Palestinians into a two-state-for-two-peoples scheme,” Sher concluded.

In fact, the US’s new position on Israel’s civilian presence in the West Bank provides possible hints about the substance of its much-anticipated peace proposal. Some have postulated that the administration’s actions indicated that it would opt for enhanced Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank without necessarily calling for the creation of a full-blown state.

While Friedman on Wednesday stopped short of endorsing Israeli annexation of areas in the West Bank, the implicit message was that the Jewish state would at the very least retain large settlement blocs in the event of a future peace agreement, a prospect that others claim might end the viability of Palestinian statehood.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s conference was convened a day after Netanyahu met with Avi Berkowitz, President Trump’s special representative for international negotiations who is on his first trip to Israel since assuming the position from Jason Greenblatt late last year. The discussion focused on the US’s long-delayed peace plan, prompting speculation that it might even be published ahead of Israel’s March 2 national elections.

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