By Ramzy Baroud
In a few words, a close associate of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, summed up the logic behind the ongoing frenzy to expand illegal Jewish settlements in Israel.
“These days are an irreplaceable opportunity to establish our hold on the Land of Israel, and I’m sure that our friend, President (Donald) Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu will be able to take advantage,” Miki Zohar, a member of the Likud Party was quoted in the Christian Science Monitor.
By “these days”, Zohar was referring to the remaining few weeks of Trump’s term in office. The US President was trounced by his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, in the presidential elections held on November 3.
Trump’s defeat ignited fears in Tel Aviv, and heated debates in the Israeli Knesset that the new US administration might challenge Israel’s unhindered settlement expansion policies.
Indeed, not only was Israel allowed to expand old settlements and build new ones throughout Trump’s term, but was actually encouraged by US officials to do so with a great sense of urgency.
US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is an ardent supporter of rapid expansion and was handpicked for his role, not because of his diplomatic experience – he has none – but to help facilitate US support for Israel’s colonial expansion. In doing so, the US violated international consensus on the issue, and reversed earlier US positions that perceived Israel’s illegal settlements as “obstacles to peace”.
Friedman was entrusted with communicating the ominous new American agenda regarding Israel’s illegal action in the occupied Palestinian territories and also in the Syrian Golan Heights. In June 2019, Friedman, rather clumsily, articulated a new American position on the illegal Jewish settlements when he said in an interview with the New York Times that “Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”
The green light to Netanyahu was translated, in January 2020, into an announcement by Israel that it intended to formally annex nearly a third of the West Bank within a few months.
The illegal annexation was set to take place on July 1. Just prior to that date, Friedman resurfaced, this time with a less coded message, that Netanyahu’s annexation had the full backing of the US government. He told the Israeli newspaper, Israel Hayom, that Washington was preparing to acknowledge the Israeli move to apply sovereignty in ‘Judea and Samaria’, using the biblical reference to the West Bank.
Annexation did not materialize as grandly as expected. Instead, the Netanyahu government opted to cement its de facto annexation of Palestinian land by announcing plans to build more settlements, barring Palestinian farmers from reaching their land and accelerating the policy of home demolition.
Months before Biden became the US president-elect, Israel seemed to be preparing for the possibility that the Trump administration might not be re-elected. Certainly, while a Biden presidency is bound to remain unconditionally supportive of Israel, the new administration is likely to return to old policies pertaining to the ‘peace process’ and the two-State solution. Netanyahu has long been averse to such rhetoric as, in his view, such unnecessary delays will cost Israel precious time that could be invested in building yet more settlements. Politically, the mere discussion of a return to negotiations could, potentially, splinter Israel’s powerful, yet fractious, pro-settlement right-wing alliance.
Immediately it was clear that Trump had lost the race, Netanyahu begrudgingly congratulated Biden. Even the Israeli leader’s belated acknowledgment of Trump’s defeat did not spare him the political ambush that awaited him. Many Knesset members attacked Netanyahu for losing Israel’s bipartisan support in Washington by allying himself with the Republican Party and the Trump administration.
Leading the charge was Israel’s opposition leader from Yesh Atid-Telem, Yair Lapid, who had already criticized the Prime Minister’s “Republican First” approach to US politics. His views were shared by many Israelis in the Knesset and media.
Reversing course in Trump’s last weeks in office is not an easy choice, especially as the Trump administration remains committed to helping Israel achieve its objectives to the very end.
On November 19, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, became the first top US official to visit an illegal Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. During his visit to a winery in the Psagot settlement, Pompeo gave Netanyahu yet more good news. He announced that products from illegal Jewish settlements could now be labeled “Made in Israel”, and that the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement would be declared ‘anti-Semitic’ by the US State Department.
The latter announcement will give Israel the legal capital required to prosecute and silence any US civil society opposition to Israel’s illegal occupation. Israel is counting on the fact that Biden is unlikely to dare contest or reverse such policies due to the sensitivity of the subject of anti-Semitism – real or alleged – in US politics.
The same rationale applies to the settlement building frenzy throughout occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
On November 20, Israeli authorities announced that 80 Palestinian families would be evicted from their homes in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. These homes would, in turn, be handed over to illegal Israeli Jewish settlers.
The news of the mass eviction came only a few days after the government’s announcements that the illegal settlements of Givat Hamatos and Ramat Shlomo, both located in East Jerusalem, are set for major expansion.
The massive development in Givat Hamatos, according to the Israeli group ‘Peace Now’, “will severely hamper the prospect of a two-State solution because it will ultimately block the possibility of territorial contiguity between East Jerusalem” and major urban centers in the West Bank.
The announcements are strategically timed, as they carry an unmistakable political message that Israel does not intend to reverse its settlement policies, regardless of who resides in the White House.
The coming weeks are likely to witness even more coordinated Israeli-US moves, where the Trump administration will seek to fulfill Netanyahu’s political wish list, leaving Biden with little political margin to maneuver, thus denying his government the self-proclaimed, undeserved title of the ‘honest peace broker’.
– Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is “These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons” (Clarity Press). Dr. Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) and also at the Afro-Middle East Center (AMEC). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net