Israel intends to take full advantage of the transitional period
A close associate of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summed up in a few words the logic behind the ongoing frenzy to expand illegal settlements in Israel.
“These days are an irreplaceable opportunity to establish our hold on the Land of Israel, and I’m sure that our friend President (Donald) Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu will be able to take advantage,” said Miki Zohar, a member of the Likud Party, according to a story published in the Christian Science Monitor.
By “these days,” Zohar was referring to the remaining few weeks of Trump’s term in office. The US president was trounced by his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, in the presidential election on Nov. 3.
Trump’s defeat ignited fears in Tel Aviv, and heated debates in the Knesset, the legislative branch of the Israeli government, that the new US administration might challenge Israel’s unhindered settlement expansion policies.
Indeed, not only was Israel allowed to expand existing settlements and build new ones throughout Trump’s term, it was actually encouraged by US officials to do so with a great sense of urgency.
David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, is an ardent supporter of rapid expansion and was handpicked for his role not because of his diplomatic experience — he has none — but to help facilitate US support for Israel’s colonial expansion. In doing so, Washington violated the international consensus on the issue, and reversed earlier US positions that perceived Israel’s illegal settlements as “obstacles to peace.”
Friedman was entrusted with communicating the ominous new American agenda regarding Israel’s illegal actions in the occupied Palestinian territories and in the Syrian Golan Heights. In June 2019, he rather clumsily articulated the new US position on the illegal settlements when he said, during an interview with the New York Times, that “Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”
This green light to Netanyahu translated, in January this year, into an announcement by Israel that it intended to formally annex nearly a third of the West Bank within a few months.
The illegal annexation was set to take place on July 1. Just prior to that date, Friedman resurfaced, this time with a less coded message: That Netanyahu’s annexation had the full backing of the US government. He told Israel Hayom newspaper that Washington was preparing to acknowledge the Israeli move to apply sovereignty in “Judea and Samaria,” using the biblical reference to the West Bank.
Annexation did not materialize as grandly as expected. Instead the Netanyahu government opted to cement its de facto annexation of Palestinian land by announcing plans to build more settlements, barring Palestinian farmers from reaching their land and accelerating the policy of home demolitions.
Months before Biden became the US president-elect, Israel seemed to be preparing for the possibility that the Trump administration might not be reelected. Certainly, while a Biden presidency is bound to remain unconditionally supportive of Israel, the new administration is likely to return to old policies pertaining to the “peace process” and the two-state solution.
Netanyahu has long been averse to such rhetoric because, in his view, such unnecessary delays will cost Israel precious time that could be invested in building yet more settlements. Politically, the mere discussion of a return to negotiations could potentially splinter Israel’s powerful, yet fractious, pro-settlement right-wing alliance.
After it was clear that Trump had lost the presidential race, many Knesset members attacked Netanyahu for losing Israel’s bipartisan support in Washington. Leading the charge was Yair Lapid, the opposition leader from Yesh Atid-Telem, who had already criticized the prime minister’s “Republican First” approach to US politics. His views were shared by many Israelis in the Knesset and media.
Reversing course during Trump’s last weeks in office is not an easy choice, especially as his administration remains committed to helping Israel achieve its objectives to the very end.
On Nov. 19, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the first leading US official to visit an illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank. During his visit to a winery in the Psagot settlement, he gave Netanyahu yet more good news when he announced that products from illegal settlements could now be labeled “Made in Israel,” and that the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement would be declared “anti-Semitic” by the US State Department.
The latter announcement will give Israel the legal capital required to prosecute and silence any US civil society opposition to illegal Israeli occupation. Israel is counting on the fact that it is unlikely Biden will dare to contest or reverse such policies because of the sensitivity of the subject of anti-Semitism — real or alleged — in US politics.
The same rationale applies to the settlement-building frenzy throughout occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. On Nov. 20, Israeli authorities announced that 80 Palestinian families would be evicted from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, and the properties handed over to illegal Israeli settlers.
The coming weeks are likely to reveal even more coordinated Israeli-US moves as the Trump administration seeks to fulfill Netanyahu’s political wish list while it can, leaving Biden with little political room for maneuver.
The news of the mass eviction came only a few days after the government’s announcements that the illegal settlements of Givat Hamatos and Ramat Shlomo, both of which are in East Jerusalem, are set for major expansions. According to Israeli group Peace Now, the massive development of the former “will severely hamper the prospect of a two-state solution because it will ultimately block the possibility of territorial contiguity between East Jerusalem” and major urban centers in the West Bank.
The announcements were strategically timed, as they sent an unmistakable political message that Israel does not intend to reverse its settlement policies, regardless of who occupies the White House. The coming weeks are likely to reveal even more coordinated Israeli-US moves as the Trump administration seeks to fulfill Netanyahu’s political wish list while it can, leaving Biden with little political room for maneuver.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is “These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons” (Clarity Press, Atlanta). Twitter: @RamzyBaroud