The Trump administration’s announcement that the official policy of the United States is no longer that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are “inconsistent with international law” did not surprise anyone. It is the latest effort by the administration to change the script on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in line with the decisions on eliminating aid to the Palestinians, moving the embassy to Jerusalem, and stating that there are some annexation scenarios that the U.S. could conceivably support. Taken together, the sum total of these decisions is to shift the way the U.S. views the West Bank. But it isn’t about moving from a view that the West Bank is occupied to a view that the West Bank is disputed. It actually goes well beyond that, creating an absurd situation where Israel’s official view of the West Bank’s status is no longer compatible with what the Israelis or the Americans are actually doing.
To begin with, U.S. policy on settlements is not by itself a ground-shifting variable. No Israeli prime minister has been deterred from building and expanding settlements by the previous American position that Mike Pompeo has now annulled. Furthermore, the 1978 legal opinion did not come out against settlements full force by declaring them patently illegal but used more cautious language. Multiple American administrations have sent deliberately ambiguous messages on settlements, standing in greater opposition to building in some areas in the West Bank, such as the controversial E-1 neighborhood in the Ma’ale Adumim bloc, than in others. While the new U.S. policy removes the ambiguity for the time being, another administration can easily come to a different legal conclusion. And like the Trump administration’s policies on recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, other countries are unlikely to follow suit.
But that does not mean that this decision should be dismissed as meaningless pablum. It is part and parcel of an effort to shift the way people think of the West Bank and Israel’s presence there. This type of conceptual shift is more important and long-lasting than whatever actual U.S. legal policy is regarding settlements at a given point in time. The Israeli government has for decades, across different parties and prime ministers, taken the position that the West Bank is not occupied but disputed. Many U.S. politicians and American Jewish leaders have also tacitly accepted this formulation, rarely describing the West Bank as occupied. In fact, the now-rescinded State Department legal opinion backed this notion as well by not calling settlements illegal but describing them as inconsistent with international law. The idea of the territory as disputed is also what underpins the notion that its ultimate disposition should be subject to negotiations. The reactions to Pompeo’s announcement go well beyond the notion of the West Bank as disputed territory, however, as do the reactions to the European Court of Justice’s decision ordering European Union states to label products made in settlements in a way that indicates their provenance.
The idea that settlements fall into a hazily defined gray area makes perfect sense in a world where the West Bank is disputed. This idea does not make any sense in a world where the West Bank belongs to Israel, which is the baseline that is now being advanced. It is no coincidence that following Pompeo’s pronouncement, Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to fast track a Knesset bill that would annex the Jordan Valley. Following this tactical move, Netanyahu released a video calling on Benny Gantz and Avigdor Liberman to join him in a unity government for the express purpose of carrying out Jordan Valley annexation on that new government’s first day. Both the Israeli government and the Trump administration want to maintain the public-facing position that the West Bank is disputed. Doing so suits their needs by pretending to be truly interested in figuring out a negotiated peace agreement, while simultaneously taking actions intended to lay the groundwork for ultimately saying that the West Bank is not disputed at all but in fact belongs to Israel permanently. Thus, we are moving from a position where Israel insists that settlements are not the core obstacle to peace (in my view the correct and sensible position), to one where Israel insists that settlements should not be viewed as an obstacle to peace of any type and are wholly irrelevant to resolving the conflict; a position whose absurdity can be instantly gleaned from speaking to a Palestinian for ten seconds.
The fierce reaction to labeling settlement goods is part and parcel of the same narrative. There are many judicious reasons to oppose labeling products that come from settlements, from the fact that West Bank settlements are singled out whereas other occupied or disputed territories are not, to the tactic of using innocuous labeling as a backdoor to a far less innocuous boycott. But much of the objection to removing the “Made in Israel” tagline on settlement products is about the substance of the label and not the label itself. In a world where the West Bank is disputed, labeling Psagot wine as “Made in the West Bank” or even “Made in Judea and Samaria” should not be an issue, as the territory is indeed disputed, and Israel has not annexed it or claimed it as part of sovereign Israel. Insisting on the absolute right to use a “Made in Israel” label reflects a very different standard, one in which the West Bank is indeed wholly and indisputably part of Israel. It shifts the discourse and mindset, so that one day in the not too distant future, even describing the West Bank as disputed will be controversial and evidence of anti-Israel bias.
The Trump administration wants to have it both ways when it comes to the West Bank. It is not quite prepared to come out and say that it no longer views the West Bank as disputed and that Israel is free to annex as it pleases – though I suspect that day is fast approaching – but it is adopting policies that point in precisely that direction. The Netanyahu government, to its dubious credit, no longer appears to have such qualms. As with so much of what the Trump administration has done on Israel, it is trying to shift the basic way in which people think about and approach the issue, and when the West Bank is no longer considered by many rational people to even be disputed, any type of viable peace agreement will vanish along with the disputed status.