Little about this apparent valedictory tour is surprising. The Trump administration dispensed with any pretense of being an honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians, making move after move that buttressed the agenda of Netanyahu’s right-wing government while further sidelining — and, often, actively undermining — Palestinian concerns. For Pompeo, the controversial set-piece in Israel is probably part of a longer-term domestic political game. The right-wing evangelical Kansan is speculated to be considering a potential 2024 presidential run and would wield his commitment to Israel’s settlers as a calling card to his religiously minded base.
But Pompeo’s visit wasn’t just a symbolic swan song. It’s yet another instance where, as Trump officials admit, the outgoing administration is setting fresh fires for the incoming one to have to put out. Pompeo issued new State Department guidelines that goods exported to the United States from certain areas of the West Bank should be marked as a “Product of Israel” — something the European Union, for example, specifically avoids doing. By making this switch, Pompeo is essentially conferring U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over large tracts of land that could theoretically constitute a Palestinian state.
“The Trump folks have done all sorts of things to blur the lines between Israel and the West Bank and effectively adopt a one-state policy,” tweeted Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum, “but this may be the measure that goes the farthest in that regard.”
President Trump and Pompeo keep finding new nails to hammer into the coffin of the two-state solution. Though they may pay lip service to the notion of a future Palestinian state, their track record shows a direct embrace of Israel’s settler movement and a consistent disinterest in the rights of Palestinians, millions of whom live under Israeli military occupation. Trump’s much-derided “vision for peace” effectively greenlit Israeli annexation of large swaths of the West Bank, though that was put on hold this summer as Israel normalized ties with a handful of Arab states.
Pompeo and his allies contend that they are just recognizing the reality of the facts on the ground. U.S. administrations before them may have backed a two-state solution, but they still presided over decades of often-unchecked Israeli settlement expansion into the occupied territories. The Trump administration simply helped shift the ambitions of the once-fringe settlers, including their calls for annexation, into the Israeli mainstream.
“In giving tacit approval for continued Israeli settlement activity and conceding greater West Bank control to Israel before negotiations even began on his own proposal, he has made prospects for peace an even longer shot,” wrote former U.S. diplomat Aaron David Miller. “Along with a divided and dysfunctional Palestinian national movement, Trump has done nothing to help resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict that, if left unsolved over time, will erode Israel’s democratic and Jewish character.”
“If the Trump administration doesn’t want to talk about a two-state solution on the 1967 border or about one democratic state for everyone,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who died of covid-19 earlier this month, wrote last year in the New York Times, “what it is actually talking about is the consolidation of a ‘one-state reality’: one state, Israel, controlling everything while imposing two different systems, one for Israeli Jews and another for Palestinians. This is known as apartheid.”
Undeterred, the White House and Netanyahu seem keen to accelerate this process before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. “The rush of Israeli settlement development that will confront the incoming Biden administration began earlier in the week when Israel announced plans to build 1,257 homes in Givat Hamatos, a community on the outskirts of Jerusalem,” reported my colleagues. “The long-delayed project is considered especially controversial because it could separate adjacent Palestinian communities and make it more difficult to ultimately share Jerusalem between Israel and a future Palestinian state.”
Biden will have difficulty reversing much of what is already done. He’s not expected to move the U.S. Embassy back to Tel Aviv. Nor will it be easy to revive the moribund peace process between Israel and its wholly embittered and infuriated Palestinian interlocutors.
Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, believes a Biden administration “can’t go back to the status-quo ante where the U.S. fudged the issue” of Israeli settlements.
“The danger is that [Biden] will reverse these policies but not do enough to actually counteract them,” Elgindy told Today’s WorldView. He said that the Trump administration made “a very overt and explicit attempt to delegitimize international frameworks” around the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and Biden’s “response needs to be a very overt and explicit attempt to re-legitimize them.”
That may mean a U.S. administration that specifically adopts a tougher line on Israeli settlements than the one in which Biden was the deputy. Former president Barack Obama said settlement expansion would make the two-state solution inviable, but he exerted little leverage to pressure the Israelis to change course. A new generation of Democrats in Congress now want to condition military aid to Israel, but it’s unclear if Biden, an old friend of the Israeli establishment, would be willing to take such a political risk.
What Pompeo’s visit also highlights is how Israel is steadily becoming a divisive wedge issue in U.S. politics. “One of our two parties has explicitly disavowed the two-state solution,” said Elgindy. “So we can no longer talk about the two-state solution as a matter of bipartisan consensus” in Washington.
The Trump administration’s latest attack on BDS, meanwhile, is in part a shot across the bow at a growing cohort of left-leaning activists mobilizing in the United States. “Americans have a long history of supporting peaceful boycotts to promote social justice and human rights, like the civil rights boycotts in Mississippi or those against apartheid in South Africa,” Eric Goldstein, the acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The Trump administration has no business trying to tar groups because they back boycotts.”