It is no surprising that the Trump Administration has now declared that Israeli settlements in the West Bank do not violate international law. Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State declared on Monday that this decision had "increased the likelihood" of a Middle East peace settlement. He added that the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and acknowledging Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights had simply "recognised the reality on the ground." All these decisions are tantamount to absolute repudiation of the policy pursued by successive US governments belonging to both Republican and Democratic Party in the past 40 years. The latest decision about the settlements in the West Bank in all practicality makes the "two-state formula" irrelevant.
Since the time of President Jimmy Carter building of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories was discouraged by the US governments. President Ronald Reagan termed the settlement ill-advised. His subsequent peace plan recommended that "the immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel more than any other action would enhance the prospects for peace". President H. W. Bush disapproved expansion of Israeli settlement in the West Bank and withheld the "package of economic assistance" when the Israeli government threatened to resume settlement programme. The Clinton administration assiduously worked in favour of a peace plan and prevailed upon the Israeli government that building of settlement would be a provocation against peace plan. President Obama was very upbeat at the beginning of his presidency and wondered why the Palestinians couldn't have a country of their own. He referred to the settlement as "illegitimate". Though he, at the final days of his presidency, increased the annual economic aid to Israel to $3.8 billion.
The United Nations Security Council in 2012 passed a resolution calling settlements "a flagrant violation under international law". The then US Secretary of State John Kerry upholding the UN resolution explained that "the proliferation of settlement outposts in the occupied territory are illegal under Israel's own laws."
Despite the disapproval of building settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem by the US government, the European Union (EU) and the United Nations, Israeli governments went ahead and built settlements. Now more than 700,000 Israeli Jews have been living in the settlements in the West Bank, the area proposed for Palestinian state under the Oslo Peace Plan. To make the situation worse, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon built 1300 kilometer-long high wall on the land inhabited by the Palestinians and made their agricultural land inaccessible. The International Court of Justice, in the Hague, declared the construction of the wall illegal.
Mike Pompeo exuberantly said, "The United States government is expressing no view on the legal status of any individual settlement. Such assessments are up to the Israeli courts. We are not addressing nor prejudging the ultimate status of the West Bank. This is for the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate." What an insidious rendition by an official of a country which has been a mediator in the Middle East!
The US decision on settlement will further escalate the tension in the region. Israeli leader Benny Gantz, one of the aspirants to be next prime minister, welcomed the decision and said, "The fate of the settlements and the residents of Judea and Samaria should be determined by agreements that meet security requirements and that can promote peace." Netanyahu praised the decision as reflecting "a historical truth - that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria. In fact, we are called Jews because we are the people of Judea."
Palestinian leader Saeb Erekat reacted with dismay and said, "Israeli settlements steal Palestinian land, seize and exploit Palestinian natural resources, and divide, displace and restrict the movement of the people of Palestine. Once again, with this announcement, the Trump administration is demonstrating the extent to which it's threatening the international system with its unceasing attempts to replace international law with the law of the jungle."
The Palestinians are the losers. The US has never been an impartial and unbiased mediator. It has been pouring money and armaments to Israel in the name of ensuring its security but neglects the sufferings of the Palestinians and discountsed their legitimate hopes and aspirations. Time and again, the United States has stood behind Israel and shielded its brutalities against international condemnations by opposing the resolutions at the United Nations. Nonetheless, Palestinians relied on successive US administrations in the hope that one day justice will be within the reach. In the process, they have endured blames from their extremist compatriots and abandoned by visionaries. The fact is now they have been betrayed by the United States.
Trump appointed Jared Kushner, a neophyte, as negotiator for the Israel-Palestine conflict in 2017. Trump claimed that if Kushner could not resolve the conflict, no one else would be able to resolve it. Kushner made several visits to the Middle East but even after three years of the appointment, he could not unveil the outline of a peace plan. Kushner's participation at the inaugural ceremony of the US embassy in Jerusalem was repugnant to the Palestinians and their leaders refused to grant him an audience. In retaliation, the US administration defunded the UNRWA, the agency entrusted to carry out humanitarian assistance to vulnerable Palestinian families.
The United States is in retreat. It has abdicated its leadership from the Paris Climate Agreement, Iran Nuclear Deal, Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and UNESCO. It has transformed the NATO into an investment enterprise and urged the member countries to contribute 2.0 per cent of their GDP (gross domestic product) to defence budget. Trump made NATO's military support to European security proportionate to the contributions - an overture that made the Europeans sceptical about US objective. Now Trump is struggling against an impeachment motion being debated in the Congress. He is fighting for his survival. Under these circumstances, the Palestinians cannot expect a better response from Washington.
Shimon Peres, a former president of Israel, once said "The people of Israel couldn't have a single night in peace since it was created." It is indeed a pathetic confession. Israel has more than 200 nuclear arsenals in its possession, a strong and well-equipped military, a developed infrastructure but still it lacks security. Israeli leaders lost sight of the fact that their security lies in their Palestinian neighbourhood. If the Palestinians are treated with respect and granted statehood, both the people of Israel and Palestine can live in peace.
Palestinians are well aware that Israel has made inroads into the Arab world. Under the guise of technical cooperation, Israel has made fences with some Arab countries. The Saudi regime does not maintain the same notion about Israel as before. In fact, Riyadh has established a friendly relation with Tele Aviv. A diplomatic relation between the two countries in near future cannot be ruled out.
Given the deep divisions in the Arab world, the war in Yemen, the Syrian crisis, conflict in Libya and unrest in Algeria, the Palestinian leadership will be called upon to make a hard choice. They will have to resist the US-Israeli pressure including economic sanction, reconcile with the Hamas and take their cause to international forums. The Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have solemn responsibility to come to the aid of the Palestinians. The wealthy Gulf States in partnership with the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) should ensure that the Palestinian entity doesn't turn dysfunctional.
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.
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