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Trump’s Israeli Settlement Reversal Is About What’s Good for Him, Not the Law

President Donald Trump and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands prior to an Oval Office meeting on March 25, 2019. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration is ending a decades-old policy that — in line with the United Nations, the European Union, and most of the rest of the planet — says that Israeli settlements on West Bank territory it conquered in a 1967 war are illegitimate under international law.

“The United States government is expressing no view on the legal status of any individual settlement,” Pompeo said. He added that such assessments are up to Israeli courts, and “we are not addressing or prejudging the ultimate status of the West Bank. This is for the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate.”

I have some questions.

Why on earth would Pompeo, under intense fire for failing to defend State Department employees attacked by President Trump over the impeachment inquiry, choose this week to kick away a legal opinion that has been a foundation of U.S. Middle East policy for 40 years? Pompeo assured us that the Trump administration has analyzed “all sides of the legal debate.” But he cited no specific legal argument, and as my former colleague Daniel Benjamin noted, no one should hold their breath waiting for that opinion. The State Department’s current legal adviser, Marik String, is acting, not Senate confirmed, and was admitted to the bar in 2013; Just Security writes that String “appears to be the least seasoned lawyer ever to lead the State Department’s Legal Office.”

Why, when President Trump has been accused of soliciting personal political assistance from a foreign government, would his administration take an action that seems designed to prop up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as his rival is in the thick of delicate coalition negotiations in Israel? (Even if majorities across the aisle in the Israeli Knesset come out in support of Pompeo’s statement, it will likely have little immediate practical effect.)

Why would you cite Ronald Reagan in support of this policy, when an easy Google search or check of Middle East expert Twitter would tell you that Reagan repeatedly called for a freeze in Israeli building on the conquered land, even referring to the settlements as “an obstacle to peace”? (For what it’s worth, back in 1967 the top Israeli government legal adviser also believed it was unlawful to build in the territories.)

Why would a U.S. administration want to initiate this policy change in the first place? Israeli journalist Barak Ravid reports that it was Washington’s idea, not Israel’s; several months ago, the Trump administration reached out to Netanyahu’s government to ask if they felt the move might harm Israel legally or internationally.

All of these questions seem to come back to one answer: Trump’s political needs at home. While it doesn’t seem that the Netanyahu government was actively pushing for this announcement, the policy shift has been on the short list of items certain Trump backers want very much — and the president needs to keep those supporters close to weather both the impeachment inquiry and his reelection campaign. The move is all about strengthening the alliance between Trump, so-called Christian Zionist Evangelicals, and a small segment of American Jewish voters and donors. The Trump administration’s claim that Israel’s settlements are perfectly legal is a minority view among the larger U.S. public and American Jews; public opinion surveys show large majorities of American Jews support Israel ceding some of the settlements to Palestinians as part of a peace deal, and growing numbers say they favor Israel giving them up entirely. Trump is burnishing his credentials with paleoconservatives — who see international law as a conspiracy to harm the U.S. — and betting others will shrug as long as he wraps this unpopular policy in Reaganism.

And what’s in it for Pompeo? Well, if you’re worried that President Trump is unhappy with you and “icing you out,” it’s not a bad idea to start the week with an extended TV appearance extolling the wisdom of the president’s policies. Of course, the secretary could have seized this opportunity to defend his staffers from defamation and intimidation, and speak up for a 40-year American wish that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be settled by negotiation, not faits accomplis. But that would entail putting national interest before political interest, and implementing the lessons Pompeo supposedly learned at West Point about officers sacrificing themselves to protect the people they command.

And that is certainly not where we are.

Trump’s Israel Settlement Shift Is About What’s Good for Him