US backs Israel on settlements, angering Palestinians and clouding peace process

Israeli settlements are seen as the biggest barrier to an independent Palestinian state. (AFP/File photo)
Updated 19 November 2019

US backs Israel on settlements, angering Palestinians and clouding peace process

  • The announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sparked anger among Palestinians
  • The move is the latest by the Trump administration seen as favoring the Israeli position over the Palestinians

WASHINGTON: The United States on Monday effectively backed Israel’s right to build Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank by abandoning its four-decade-old position that they were “inconsistent with international law,” a stance that may make Israeli-Palestinian peace even more elusive.
The announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was a victory for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is struggling to remain in power after two inconclusive Israeli elections this year, and a defeat for the Palestinians.
It appeared to deliver a new blow to Trump’s efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a peace plan that has been in the works for more than two years but has drawn widespread skepticism even before its release.
Pompeo said US statements about the settlements on the West Bank, which Israel captured in 1967, had been inconsistent, saying Democratic President Jimmy Carter found they were not consistent with international law and Republican President Ronald Reagan said he did not view them as inherently illegal.
“The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements is not, per se, inconsistent with international law,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department, reversing a formal legal position taken by the United States under Carter in 1978.
His announcement drew praise from Netanyahu, who said it “rights a historical wrong,” and condemnation from Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who said Washington was threatening “to replace international law with the ‘law of the jungle.’“
Palestinians argued the US stance flouted international law. The international community views the transfer of any country’s civilians to occupied land as illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and UN Security Council resolutions.
“The United States is neither qualified nor is authorized to negate international legitimacy resolutions and it has no right to give any legitimacy to Israeli settlement,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The United States said its stance could prompt violence, warning Americans in the region to exercise greater vigilance because those opposing the move “may target” US government facilities, private interests and citizens.
Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, said the policy change would have “dangerous consequences” for the prospects of reviving peace talks and called settlements “a blatant violation of international law.”
Pompeo said the move was not meant to prejudge the status of the West Bank, which the Palestinians hope will become part of an eventual Palestinian state as part of a wider resolution of the conflict.
“This is for the Israelis and the Palestinians to negotiate,” he said, saying the US decision was not meant “to compel a particular outcome nor create any legal obstacle to a negotiated resolution.”
While Pompeo said the administration was adopting Reagan’s view that settlements were not intrinsically illegal, he dodged a question on whether he shared Reagan’s view that they were ill-advised and an obstacle to peace.
Like many of the Trump administration’s pro-Israeli moves, the settlements announcement is likely to appeal to evangelical Christians, an important part of Trump’s political base that he is counting on to help him win re-election in 2020.
The timing suggested the White House may believe it could help Netanyahu withstand a challenge from his leading domestic rival Benny Gantz two days before Gantz faces a deadline to form a government after an inconclusive election.
Analysts criticized the move, saying it would make it even harder to resolve the more than 70-year-old conflict.
“He can declare that night is day, but it will not change the fact that Israeli settlements are not only illegal under international law, but are also a huge obstacle to peace and to the stability of our region,” said Hagit Ofran of the Israeli anti-settlements group Peace Now.
The announcement marked the third major instance in which the Trump administration has sided with Israel and against Palestinians and Arab positions.
In 2017 Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and, in 2018, the United States formally opened an embassy there. US policy had previously been that Jerusalem’s status was to be decided by the parties to the conflict.
And in March, Trump recognized Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria in a boost for Netanyahu that prompted a sharp response from Damascus.
As of late Monday, no other nations appeared to have followed the United States by declaring they had ceased to view the settlements as inconsistent with international law.
Trump’s move may aim to help Netanyahu as he tries to stay in power. After two inconclusive elections this year, Netanyahu and rival Gantz have both struggled to forge a ruling coalition.
Martin Indyk, a former US peace negotiator, described the decision on Twitter as “a totally gratuitous move.” “Why slap the Palestinians in the face again? Why boost the settlement/annexation movement at the very moment that Gantz is trying to form a government?” he asked.

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British MPs urge UK government to recognize Palestine

Updated 21 January 2020

British MPs urge UK government to recognize Palestine

  • Palestinian envoy welcomes cross-party call ahead of visit by Prince Charles

LONDON: A group of British MPs has called for the UK to recognize the state of Palestine ahead of a visit by Prince Charles to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

In a letter to The Times, the MPs, along with figures from think tanks and pressure groups, said the move was long overdue and would help fulfill Britain’s “promise of equal rights for peoples in two states.” 

The call comes as the heir to the British throne travels on Thursday to Israel and the occupied West Bank. 

During the visit, he will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem. 

Prince Charles will also attend the World Holocaust Forum to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. 

The letter said since 2014, no meaningful progress has been made in the peace process, and Israel’s actions are pushing a two-state solution beyond reach.

“Illegal Israeli settlements, described by the Foreign Office as undermining peace efforts, are expanding,” the letter said.

Among the signatories are Emily Thornberry, a candidate for the Labour Party leadership, and Crispin Blunt, chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council.

Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy to the UK, welcomed the move but said full recognition from the British government should have happened many years ago.

“Recognition doesn’t contradict peacemaking and negotiations,” Zomlot told Arab News, referring to the main argument used by the UK against taking such a step. 

“It reinforces the vision (of a Palestinian state) and a negotiated two-state solution. It should happen now because of the threat of annexation (of Palestinian territory) and the killing of the two-state solution.”

FASTFACT

Prince Charles will also attend the World Holocaust Forum to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. 

Alistair Carmichael, a Liberal Democrat MP who signed the letter, told Arab News that the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government toward Palestine “makes the achievement of a two-state solution more and more remote with every week that passes.”

He said: “The UK has historic and political obligations toward Israelis and Palestinians. There’s now no longer any good reason not to recognize the state of Palestine.”

A spokesman for Labour MP Fabian Hamilton, who also signed the letter, told Arab News: “The fact that this has cross-party support shows the growing desire across Parliament for the recognition of a Palestinian state and a two-state solution.”

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said the international community needs to finally stand up for the solution that it has had on the table for decades.

Doyle, an Arab News columnist, said the letter is an “indication that many people in British politics think we should be doing this, we should be standing up for the Palestinian right to self-determination, the legal rights, at a time when the state of Israel is doing everything to stop this, to take more land from the Palestinians.”

The letter was timed to coincide with a meeting of European foreign ministers on Monday, who discussed the Middle East peace process.

The Palestinian Authority, which runs parts of the West Bank, has been increasing calls for European countries to recognize the state of Palestine as the US has shifted to a more pro-Israel stance, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017.

Writing in The Guardian on Monday, Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said Europe could strengthen its role in the peace process if it recognized Palestine.

“European recognition of this state is not only a European responsibility but a concrete way to move towards a just and lasting peace,” he said.

Only nine out of the 28 EU countries have so far recognized Palestine as a state, compared to 138 out of the 193 UN member states.

In 2011, the UK’s then-Foreign Minister William Hague said the British government “reserves the right” to recognize Palestine “at a time of our own choosing, and when it can best serve the cause of peace.”

In 2012, the UN General Assembly voted to upgrade Palestine’s status to that of “nonmember observer state.”