In validating the transgression of international law, the Trump administration is dismantling a crucial pillar of an order based on rights, both as an aspiration and a hope.
US foreign policy has bipolar disorder. It swings wildly between low and high moods. This is why US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo can say that Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories are not “inconsistent with international law” but that China’s increasingly threatening actions towards Hong Kong raise grave concerns.
Recognition of the Israeli settlements was presented as bowing to “the reality on the ground.” Not so Hong Kong’s plight — more than five months of escalating protests against Beijing’s attempt to limit the freedoms enjoyed by the largely self-governing city.
Pompeo’s statement on Hong Kong was the Trump administration in a high mood. It was bullish, pushing the pro-democracy, pro-freedom narrative traditionally expected — nay, demanded — of the United States.
Never mind that US President Donald Trump, who hardly ever speaks about human rights, has offered no particular statement of support for the Hong Kong pro-democracy activists. Never mind that Trump even told the Chinese president some months ago that he would not publicly back the protesters if talks to resolve US-China trade tensions continue to progress.
The announcement on Israeli settlements was the US administration in a low mood. It wasn’t vision stuff, just realpolitik, recognising, as Pompeo said, that decades of US policy “didn’t work.”
That, no matter the United States’ chosen terminology, Israeli governments, whether led by Likud or Labour, have consistently built and expanded settlements for the past half-century. There appears to be no way to turn the clock back, without Israeli acquiescence to international pressure.
However, the international pressure necessary to force Israeli acquiescence does not exist so, these settlements — hundreds of them, some official, some not — in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank — will stay. It is hard to see any Israeli government or anyone else removing the settlements by force, as long as Israel, backed by the United States, insists on its own interpretation of international law.
Yet, international law is very clear. The Fourth Geneva Convention, ratified by 192 countries after World War II, says that an occupying power “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” The UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice say Israeli settlements on the West Bank violate the convention.
Nine successive US administrations refused to accept that Israel is justified in allowing settlers to build homes in the West Bank as their biblical birthright. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter’s administration said settlements were illegal. Ronald Reagan disagreed, in 1981, but acknowledged that settlements were an impediment to peace. The Obama administration said that settlements were “illegitimate.”
In light of the weasel words on settlements from multiple US administrations, it’s fair to ask why the Trump rebranding makes a difference. Israeli settlers had perforce created the facts on the ground — they are firmly in possession of land to which Israel does not have any right, at least by international law, and no one seems able or willing to do anything about it. The peace process is notable only for being absent. Why decry the Trump administration for recognising hideous, organic reality?
There are two reasons. First, it takes a two-state solution off the table but without any indication of how Israel will treat Arab residents of the de facto single state that is inexorably coming into being. Will Palestinians in the new, engorged Israel have full citizenship rights or second-class status?
Second, the low mood of US bipolar disorder affects the whole world. In validating the transgression of international law, the Trump administration is dismantling a crucial pillar of an order based on rights, both as an aspiration and a hope.
Originally published in The Arab Weekly