“I admit I am very moved,” Netanyahu said at the gathering. He called the Trump administration’s latest policy shift toward Israel “an achievement that will stand for generations.”
For many living in Israel’s settlements, the news from Washington was a welcome relief from the drumbeat of condemnation from the international community, including a recent European requirement that products from the settlements carry special labeling.
“Israel does not act in a vacuum,” said Oded Revivi, who is the foreign envoy for the Yesha Council, the settlers’ umbrella group, and is mayor of Efrat, a Jewish town in the West Bank. “When we do not have backing, then less things get done.”
But observers said their eagerness to do more — add settlements, expand settlements, annex parts of the West Bank — was likely to be met with disappointment, at least in the short term. Like so much else in the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the bombshell announcement was a noisy outburst not likely to make much difference on the contested ground any time soon.
“It’s a historic decision, yes, an important decision. But I don’t see that it will have any practical impact now,” said Amos Gilead, a retired major general in the Israeli army and former coordinator of government activities in the occupied territories.
Gilead said he fears that, over time, the move could widen the gap between Israelis and Palestinians and further erode Washington’s customary role as an honest broker between the two. But for now, change will be hampered by, among other things, Israel’s lack of a government.
After two elections and nearly a year of caretaker leadership, policy moves are debated but not enacted. Budgets dwindle. Plans are deferred. Netanyahu and his rival, former military chief of staff Benny Gantz, have both failed to assemble parliamentary majorities after September’s election. Wednesday brings another deadline that could lead to yet a third election since April.
“Netanyahu is trying to form a coalition, but no one knows what will happen tomorrow,” Revivi said. “This all needs to be sorted out first before we can implement this declaration.”
Revivi said there was some concern that a possible Gantz government may be less supportive of the settlements. But “as a mayor, I am more concerned that the country is going to collapse because there has been no functioning government for so long,” he said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the decision to upend more than 40 years of U.S. policy was not an endorsement of any particular settlement, many of which he described as “ill-advised.” Rather, he said, the move reflects a belief that communities housing hundreds of thousands of Israelis are not illegal “per se.” Nullifying the 1978 State Department legal opinion would boost the chances for a Middle East peace settlement, Pompeo said.
But for Palestinians, the decision was only the latest shake-up of American policy under President Trump that has tainted Washington’s standing as a mediator, including his shift of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018. For many Palestinians who live in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, Monday’s announcement was one more affront that makes them feel double-teamed by Israeli hard-liners and Washington alike.
“This is an administration that has decided to move from negotiation to dictation,” said Saeb Erekat, the longtime chief Palestinian negotiator. “They have moved from being pro-Israeli to pro-Israeli occupation.”
Erekat, who had just left a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss their response, said Palestinians would take the issue to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday. They planned to call for an emergency summit of Arab-nation foreign ministers and a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Israeli peace activists, too, were dispirited. They were rankled not just by the substance of Pompeo’s departure from 40 years of U.S. policy, but also by the scriptural language that some supporters of the shift used to justify it. American evangelical leaders — a cornerstone of Trump’s political base — hailed the move as a literal answer to their prayers, an echo of the many Jewish settlers who trace their claim to the lands to biblical mandates.
“Right now we should remember our Genesis,” said Avi Dabush, head of Rabbis for Human Rights, an advocacy group working in the West Bank. “Abraham was father to both peoples, Jews and Muslims. In the end, we all have to live here, not die on some extreme belief that everything belongs only to us.”
But for many Israelis, who see Palestinian violence as a bigger obstacle to peace than Jewish settlements, Trump’s methodical shifts their way come as a welcome turnaround. Many here saw the Obama administration as antagonistic toward Israel. In particular, Pompeo’s action was a sweet antidote to President Barack Obama’s decision to allow passage of a U.N. resolution that condemned settlements as “a flagrant violation under international law,” a first for a U.S. president.
“It is the opposite of what Obama and John Kerry said, that the settlements did not promote peace,” Revivi said, referring to Obama’s secretary of state. “But calling the settlements illegal and freezing building there did not promote peace either.”
Micah Goodman, author of the book “Catch-67,” which offers an in-depth look at the debate over Israel’s settlements, said the U.S. announcement could help to remove the debate over legal status of the land and put the focus on ethics.
“If we are using legal categories, then we are not thinking about the real problems and the ethical questions,” said Goodman, whose book was widely touted by Israel’s political establishment. “The questions should be, how do we create a world where there is less suffering. Are all settlements immoral? Can there be a more subtle distinction and a discussion?”