Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday announced that the US no longer considers Israeli settlements to be illegal under international law. He also said there are certain “realities” that are specific to Israel that do not apply to other territorial disputes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the announcement was a “historic day.” Netanyahu’s special relationship with Donald Trump has allowed the Israeli government to get away with most of its recent transgressions of international law. However, drunk with power, the Israeli government does not see that the general mood in the US is changing and that policy might well shift with the next administration.
Last week, a video went viral on social media. The Israeli ambassador to the US was about to give a lecture to defend settlements, when suddenly everyone left, carrying signs denouncing him and the settlements. This did not happen in some left-wing, unknown school — it happened at Harvard Law School. The opposition to settlements and to Israel’s aggression is becoming more and more part of the mainstream discourse. A poll conducted in April showed that only 26 percent of Democrats view Israel’s government favorably. Several presidential candidates did not attend this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, among others. Vice President Mike Pence proudly addressed the conference, saying that, while he shows support to Israel, eight Democratic candidates had boycotted the event. MoveOn, a liberal organization, called on the Democratic candidates to boycott AIPAC. It is no longer only Sanders who can be vocal in opposing Israel’s actions.
However, the Israeli government does not seem to grasp the change in public opinion that will soon produce a change in policy. On Nov. 14, Israel bombed the home of a civilian and killed eight members of his family. In a heartbreaking news report, the man showed the clothes of his children who were killed, saying they were not members of Islamic Jihad. It was just a simple family. Israel bombs and does not care, thinking that public opinion will deal with the civilian casualties as collateral damage. However, sooner or later, it will be held accountable for its transgressions. Public opinion has already shifted in Europe.
The UN General Assembly Second Committee last week approved a resolution that asks Israel to compensate Lebanon for the oil slick that formed off its coast due to Tel Aviv’s bombing of the country in 2006. The resolution also reaffirms the sovereignty of Palestinians over their natural resources. It called for Israel to stop destroying Palestinian infrastructure and to cease the demolition of Palestinian homes. It also called for reconstruction and development projects in Palestine, including Gaza.
Tel Aviv might look at such a resolution as insignificant and as one of those UN resolutions that never see the light of day. However, soon the Israelis might be compelled to comply, as public opinion continues to change. In fact, it is in Israel’s interest to make peace with the Palestinians and their neighbors as soon as possible. Israel builds more illegal settlements thinking it is creating a new reality — a new benchmark from which it can negotiate. However, if one day it is forced to go back to UN resolutions and apply them, then actually the settlements will not be a bargaining chip but a self-inflicted problem.
As for the concept of anti-Semitism, while it is applied to almost everything that is critical of or even touches on Israel, more and more people are limiting the concept, saying it is acceptable to criticize Israel the same way it is acceptable to criticize anyone else. At a J Street event last month, Sanders said it is not anti-Semitic to say that Netanyahu is racist. J Street, the fierce enemy of AIPAC that strongly advocates for a two-state solution, hosted five Democratic presidential candidates. If a Democrat unseats Trump, which is probable, Israel will be compelled to give the Palestinians their state.
It is in Israel’s interest, while its government still has influence in Washington, to clinch a deal with the Palestinians and maintain whatever is left of its positive image among the American public before it crumbles. However, the Israeli government suffers from the arrogance of power. This has led to the fall of many empires. It is when a political entity starts acting irrationally, blinded by power. So far, Israel has been able to violate several UN resolutions and get away with it because of US support at the UN. However, as public perception is slowly changing, this policy will ultimately change at a certain point in time. When this happens, Israel will have to comply with international law like all other states. However, blinded by arrogance, Israel’s government does not see it coming.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations. She holds a PhD in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
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