In principle, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s answer to a question about Israel’s new coalition government seems unexceptionable. The agreement signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz allows for a vote in the upcoming months about extending Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, including settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley. As far as Pompeo is concerned, whether or not they do so is up to the Israelis.
According to Reuters, Pompeo said, “As for the annexation of the West Bank, the Israelis will ultimately make those decisions. That’s an Israeli decision. And we will work closely with them to share with them our views of this in [a] private setting.”
That wouldn’t have been the reaction from President Barack Obama’s State Department, nor is it fair to say from the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush or even Ronald Reagan. They would have all fervently and publicly opposed any Israeli talk of annexation, let alone plans to implement the idea.
What’s different about the approach of the administration of President Donald Trump, which put forward a plan for the Middle East earlier this year that envisioned Israeli holding onto approximately 30 percent of the West Bank in the context of a scheme that would have also allowed the creation of an independent, though demilitarized Palestinian state, is not just its view about the contours of a solution to the conflict.
What really sets Trump and Pompeo apart from their predecessors is that the current American government doesn’t think that it is entitled to dictate policy to the Israelis. And it is this unwillingness to give orders to the Jewish state that really shocks critics of Israel and the foreign-policy establishment.
Obama wasn’t reticent about expressing his feelings about the relationship between the two countries. Though at times he paid lip service to the strong affection felt by the overwhelming majority of Americans for Israel, he never bothered to conceal his disdain for any notion that the Israelis should be treated as equals. He was explicit about believing that he had the right to “save Israel from itself” since the policies adopted by its democratically elected government were not in accord with his own unrealistic vision of how to achieve peace. He believed he had the right to override the will of the Israeli people as expressed at the ballot box, and many of his American Jewish adherents agreed with him about that.
And despite the far friendlier tone adopted by George W. Bush towards Israel, he, too, didn’t differ much about whether or not the Israelis had the right to make decisions for themselves. As Israel’s sole superpower ally, the United States has always arrogated to itself the right to expect the Israelis to do as Washington instructed.
Indeed, every U.S. ambassador to the Jewish state prior to Trump’s appointment of David Friedman in 2017 acted like a pro-consul of the Roman or British empires, whose job it was to issue orders to a client state that held pretensions of sovereignty that were not to be treated with too much deference.
American support for the “land for peace” formula by which Israel would be required to give up virtually every inch of ground it acquired in defensive wars has become increasingly untenable in the face of consistent Palestinian refusals to make peace on any terms. While the Palestinian Authority rejected Trump’s plan as incompatible with its leaders’ ambitions, they have also rejected several far more generous Israeli and American peace offers. They’re still stuck in the same mindset of a century-old war against Zionism that prevents them from recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.
That’s why there is a consensus among Israelis stretching across the political spectrum that sees no viable partner for peace. While there may be disagreements about timing or the wisdom of acting on the issue now, Gantz has criticized past efforts to appease the Palestinians by giving up territory and settlements, and endorsed annexation of the Jordan Valley.
Nor would annexation prevent the Palestinians from having a state should they ever decide to embrace peace since no realistic plan has ever required Israel to give up the settlement blocs. By acquiescing to permanent Israeli control over these areas, including sovereignty over Jerusalem, the Trump administration has merely acknowledged reality, rather than engaging in the magical thinking about the Palestinians that characterized its predecessors’ policies.
But the principle at stake here is Israel’s right to decide its own fate.
Some Americans believe that the annexation of any land would be a disaster for Israel and must be avoided at all costs, even if it means depriving the Israeli people of self-determination. The problem with this stand is not only that the wisdom of such policy prescriptions for Israel is questionable, it’s also that they are rooted in a misguided belief that Israelis are too stupid or too driven by ideology or faith to do what’s right. Israelis deserve more respect from Americans, and it is to Trump’s credit that he is willing to give it to them.
Some have also argued in the past that Israeli actions would compromise U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds. But the Arab world has grown sick of Palestinian intransigence and hardly protested Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. They look to Israel as an ally against Iran because they felt abandoned by Obama’s policy of nuclear appeasement. The old Arabist notion that Israel is an obstacle to better U.S. relations with the Arab world is hopelessly outdated.
Peace cannot be imposed by the United States. If it does ever happen, it will only be when the Palestinians realize that Israel will not be handed over to them on a silver platter in pieces. Trump’s respect for Israeli democracy is right in principle, and it also remains the only, albeit theoretical, path to peace.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.