Palestinian houses in the village of Wadi Fukin are seen with the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit in the background [Nir Elias/Reuters]
It was another blow to the Palestinians after the United States formally reversed a decades-old policy of treating Israeli settlements in the occupied territories as a violation of international law
Palestinian leaders spent decades in peace efforts with Israel based on the notion that settlement building would undermine the very notion of a two-state solution.
On Monday, US Secretary of state Mike Pompeo announced the US will no longer abide by President Jimmy Carter’s state department legal opinion in 1978 that the settlements were ” inconsistent with international law”.
President Ronald Reagan disagreed with the Carter’s administration legal opinion in 1981, but nevertheless described the building of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories as “unnecessarily provocative”.
No US administration since the 1967 war – during which Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem – has opposed in any meaningful way the Israeli occupation, much less settlement building on Palestinian land.
Successive US administrations since then, however, maintained a careful bipartisan approach to the question of the legality of Israeli occupation and settlements, while at the same maximising political and military support for Israel.
Monday’s announcement represents yet another steep shift by President Donald Trump‘s administration in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Previous reversals of established Middle East foreign policy norms include Trump’s recognition in 2017 of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – making the United States the only major country to do so. In March, the US president also recognised the Israeli annexation of the occupied Syrian territory of Golan Heights.
The latest US announcement will have little bearing on international law and nations that adhere to it, argues Kevin Jon Heller, associate professor of public international law at the University of Amsterdam.
“I find it difficult to imagine other countries, much less international legal institutions, taking seriously Trump administration pronouncements on international law. The administration has proven time and again that it considers international law irrelevant,” Heller told Al Jazeera.
Palestinian leadership failure
In theory, the US move could clear the way for the Israeli government to annex settlements built on large swaths of the West Bank, as well as the fertile Jordan Valley bordering neighbouring Jordan. Beyond their angry denouncements, Palestinian leaders have little against the American decision.
Should Israel go ahead and annex major parts of the West Bank, the two-state solution will no longer be viable and the possibility of an independent and contiguous Palestinian state likely dead.
Complicating the Palestinian political predicament are the burgeoning alliances between Israel and Arab states.
In addition to Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab states having signed formal peace treaties with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE and Morocco have informal security and cultural ties with Tel Aviv, thereby limiting the Palestinians’ course of action.
Wasel Abu Yousef, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader in Ramallah, said the US decision “is not God’s fate” and it would not deter the Palestinians from continuing to resist the Israeli occupation.
Abu Yousef called for the withdrawal of Palestinian recognition of Israel because of the American move.
Arab failure to understand Zionism
Adnan Abu Odeh – the former chief of Jordan’s royal court, who is also a Palestinian hailing from the West Bank city of Nablus – sees the US decision as a direct result of Palestinian leaders’ “incompetence” when negotiating peace agreements with Israel during the 1990s.
Abu Odeh says the Palestinians, led by then PLO chairman the late Yaser Arafat, made “strategic blunders” when they failed to understand the scope of Zionism – the nationalist ideology behind the establishment of Israel as a state for the Jewish people, and which drives Israeli policy decisions.
He says Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas, who currently heads the Palestinian Authority, failed to settle the issue of borders with Israel when they had a chance during their 1993 secret Oslo Accord negotiations.
They also failed to resolve the issues of the right of return for refugees and Jerusalem’s status, leaving them open for future negotiations.
“Without resolving these three strategic issues, the Palestinian leaders essentially gave Israel the time to gradually change the realties on the ground, and eventually remove them from the negotiating table,” Abu Odeh says.
The latest US reversal on settlements should not be shocking to those who understand Israeli thinking as driven by Zionist principles, says Abu Odeh, who previously served as an adviser to Jordan King Abdullah II and his father, the late King Hussein.
“Zionism ideology,” he explains, uses “soft infiltration” first when taking over Palestinian land or occupying Arab territory through war.
“Then, over time, it starts legitimising those gains through political and legal means. Because neither the Jordanians nor the Palestinian leaders really understood Zionist thought, this is what happened to Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan heights today.”
Israel seeks to eventually expel more Palestinians from the West Bank, most likely into Jordan, to create its Jewish state that would include the occupied West Bank, he says.
However, the situation between Israel and the Palestinians is far from resolved, concludes Abu Odeh.