At a conference in Jerusalem last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel is suddenly experiencing “an unprecedented reality” and that the “change of the old order gives us the opportunity to liberate ourselves from old policies,” but warned that the opportunity will not last forever.
“There is a window of opportunity. It opened, but it could close,” Netanyahu told those gathered at the capital’s Begin Heritage Center for the Kohelet Policy Forum conference.
In an obvious reference to the complex political realities faced by both Israel and the United States, both of which go to national elections this year—in Israel’s case the third in a 12-month span—the prime minister added, “I hope it won’t be so brief, but I can’t go into it now.”
The “old policies” Netanyahu referred to, as codified in the Oslo Accords, do not allow for Israeli sovereignty anywhere within Judea and Samaria. A peace plan the Trump administration is preparing to introduce has the potential to shatter the Oslo Accords and the present two-state paradigm, but is on hold due to Israel’s political logjam.
Moshe Koppel, president of Kohelet Policy Forum, told JNS that “while I do not know precisely what is in President Trump’s plan, I’m quite confident that, in accordance with the Pompeo Doctrine, it will leave Israel in control of significant parts of Area C and will not give the Palestinians much unless they commit to a cessation of claims, which they will not do.”
He added that “as such, it is clearly in Israel’s interest to have the plan put forward as soon as possible. It is extremely regrettable that political instability, and the danger that an inexperienced and incompetent politician might become prime minister, is preventing the plan from being advanced during the short window in which it is politically feasible for the Americans to do so.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also addressed the conference, reiterating the breakthrough U.S. policy shift, coined by Kohelet as “the Pompeo Doctrine,” affirming that Israeli settlements in the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria do not inherently violate international law.
The paradigm shift addresses decades of near consensus among international actors that have continuously rejected Israeli rights to live peaceably or otherwise in lands central to Jewish history, that were conquered in a defensive war and are critical to Israel’s long-term security.
In his recorded video statement to the conference, Pompeo effectively cancelled the 1978 Carter-era Hansell Memorandum, a legal opinion submitted by State Department legal counsel Herbert Hansell, according to which Israel’s settlements policy is inconsistent with international law.
Pompeo’s statement paves the way for Israel to apply formal sovereignty over tracts of lands at the heart of the decades-old dispute with the Palestinians.
“The conclusion that we will no longer recognize Israeli settlements as per se inconsistent with international law is based on the unique facts, history and circumstances presented by the establishment of civilian settlements in the West Bank,” said Pompeo.
According to Netanyahu, “the Pompeo declaration about the status of the towns [in Judea and Samaria] establishes the truth that we are not strangers in our land.”
“There was no ‘West Bank’ separate from the rest of the land,” added the prime minister. “It was seen as the heart of the land. We never lost our right to live in Judea and Samaria. The only thing we lost temporarily was the ability to exercise the right.”
In a live address at the conference, Ambassador Friedman explained that since arriving in Israel he has been working to fix “issues that still linger from the Six-Day War,” an event, he said, “that may be the defining moment of the modern State of Israel.” In particular, he noted three outstanding “lingering” issues, including formal recognition of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and Judea and Samaria. The ambassador noted that the U.S. administration has been working to approach the issues in “ascending order of complexity.”
Friedman said that U.S. President Donald Trump had demonstrated “the courage and the wisdom to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move our embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.” He added that “in recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, President Trump, evaluating the continuous malign and barbarous threats posed by Syria, concluded that no northern boundary for Israel would be secure except a boundary that incorporated the Golan.”
And while those two acts represent tremendous diplomatic achievements for the Jewish state, both Jerusalem and the Golan Heights were formally annexed by Israel long ago. Recognizing Israeli rights to administer and settle Judea and Samaria, on the other hand, represents a much greater diplomatic opportunity.
Backing up the Secretary of State, Friedman explained that while “the Pompeo Doctrine does not resolve the conflict,” it affirms “that Israelis have a right to live in Judea and Samaria.” Friedman noted that prior to the founding of the modern Jewish state, the British Trust and international agreements were “obliged to facilitate settlement of the Jewish people in this land.”
“The name ‘Judea’ says it all,” said Friedman, calling the disputed territory “the biblical heartland of Israel.”
Among the key strategic tracts of land within Judea and Samaria is the Jordan Valley, long considered a critical strategic asset necessary to protect Israel’s population centers and airspace in the event that Jordanian security coordination with Israel breaks down—a dangerous yet likely scenario that Israel must be prepared for at any time.
From Pompeo’s statements—and those of his colleague Friedman, who has been central to formulating the Trump administration’s aggressive pro-Israel policies—it’s clear that the United States is willing to shatter the current Oslo Accords. And they may well be prepared to accept Israel’s formal application of sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, as well as other strategic parcels of land in Judea and Samaria.
This new reality represents a dramatic reversal from the Obama administration. In the final days of President Barack Obama’s term, for example, the United States refused to veto an anti-Israel United Nations resolution that “reaffirms that the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law,” and “demand[s] that Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activities.”
In two Israeli national elections held in the past 12 months, political opponents have thus far proven unable to unseat the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. Still, they have twice blocked Netanyahu from forming new coalitions. And with formal indictments against Netanyahu looming, his chances of forming a parliamentary majority after an upcoming third national election in less than a year remain tenuous.
This political gridlock has already stalled Israel’s ability to annex the Jordan Valley.
Prior to Israel’s Sept. 17 election, Netanyahu gave a dramatic national address promising to formally annex the Jordan Valley if re-elected. For the past eight months, without a parliamentary majority, he has headed a transitional government with limited powers. Such limits prevent Netanyahu from taking any dramatic diplomatic initiatives. Had he already secured a coalition, his “promise” to annex the Jordan Valley may have instead been a formal announcement.
Furthermore, it remains unclear whether the political challengers to Netanyahu’s left would be willing to formally annex any parts of the disputed territories, regardless of the present opportunity. Indeed, in words addressed in Hebrew towards Israeli voters, the prime minister warned of the possibility that his challengers may exhibit “weak leadership” if elected and “hit rewind” on the progress now being made.
Ironically, for the majority of Netanyahu’s 10-year stint as premier, he governed opposite an American president in Obama who rejected Israel’s rights to build in or administer Judea and Samaria. And yet now, governing alongside an administration he calls “friends that Israel has not had since President Harry Truman recognized the Jewish state,” Netanyahu lacks the capability to take full advantage of the Pompeo Doctrine’s opportunities.
Instead of immediately jumping on a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Israel now finds itself caught in a political holding pattern, wasting precious chances that may not be available in the future.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.