Trump Reverses Decades of U.S. Policy, Declaring Israeli Settlements on Palestinian Land Don’t Violate International Law

Interview with Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, conducted by Scott Harris

President Trump, in another action that’s smashed the norms and conventions of U.S. foreign policy, has broken with the longstanding worldwide consensus that Israeli settlements on Palestinian land constitutes a violation of international law. Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Nov. 18 that the U.S. will no longer abide by a 1978 State Department legal opinion that the settlements were “inconsistent with international law.”  This latest move continues a pattern of the Trump regime overturning decades of U.S. Middle East policies. In 2017, Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and in March, Trump recognized Israel’s 1981 annexation of the occupied Golan Heights.

A succession of United Nations Security Council resolutions, the most recent in 2016, determined that Israeli settlements are illegal as they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring its population to the territory it occupies.

Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian negotiator and member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, said that Trump’s action was “another blow to international law, justice & peace.” In response to Trump’s policy change, “Day of Rage” protests erupted on Nov. 26 in the Palestinian West Bank.  Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, who assesses the likely repercussions from Trump’s reversal of U.S. policy on Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: So I think there’s a couple of different ways to think about this announcement, both of which are important. First of all, this announcement is in line with a number of different steps that the Trump administration has taken that have really been ideologically driven and focused specifically on dismantling everything that has been known as “the peace process” and specifically, you know, any achievements and any hopes that Palestinians had. So you look for example, at recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Or on recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Or on the position towards the United Nations Relief Works Agency, UNRWA, and Palestinian refugees. Or on the closing of the Palestinian delegation here in the United States and cutting off all aid, including U.S. aid support to Palestinians. This is part of a systemic effort to entirely and overtly align U.S. policy with the most extreme right-wing fantasies in Israel.

At the same time, I think it’s important to keep in mind that while yes, Pompeo’s announcement is part of this broader ideological project that the Trump administration has been engaged in, I think it is a mistake to say that it really realigns U.S. policy when it comes to settlements in particular. I think the unfortunate reality is that while there is broad international consensus about settlements being illegal under international law, previous American administrations, including the Obama administration, the Bush administration, Clinton and so on before them across party lines, have hesitated and in fact objected to the issue of settlements being adjudicated in the framework of international law and within international institutions. You know, the Obama administration, for example, vetoed the United Nations Security Council Resolution in 2011 which called the illegal Israeli settlements “illegal” precisely because they did not want that kind of language and framing to define how the issue should be resolved.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Yousef, I wanted to ask you about Benjamin Netanyahu, who is still prime minister despite his indictment and turmoil in Israeli politics, who in the past has called for the annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but in the past has not taken action to trigger that change. But now with the Trump administration, a policy announcement here on not viewing Israeli settlements on Palestinian land as illegal under international law, might that not change at this point?

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: I think it’s very possible that the announcement by Pompeo will lead to further steps by the Israelis when it comes to annexation formally or whatever else. I would disagree with the idea that the Israelis have not taken steps towards annexation. I think in many ways they have already annexed the territory in every possible way, but with a formal announcement. And so, there’s a lot that has been done, especially over the last 10 years under the leadership of Netanyahu where the Israelis have entrenched their control in further parts of the West Bank than ever before and began to lay the legal foundation, the legalistic foundation to really enact annexation at some point in time. You know, there used to be a TV game show called Supermarket Sweep. If you remember this show, the idea was the contestants would have, you know, two minutes to run through the supermarket aisles, collect all of the goods for the game at the end.

The Israelis have approached the Trump administration in the very same way. They understand they have a limited period of time in which they can extract some of the greatest fantasies that they ever had that they could not have imagined an American administration agreeing to. And they know that time may very well be running out. And so they have tried to get as much as they could from the Trump administration: recognition of Jerusalem; again, cutting off the Palestinians and the refugees; recognition of the Golan Heights. And now of course, this announcement on the settlements.

It may very well be the case that with time ticking down on the Trump administration’s first term, potentially last term – they will try to take further irreversible steps like announcing annexation after this announcement. It certainly would be consistent with the pattern of Israeli policy during the Trump administration.

For more information, visit U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights at

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