With U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement that “Israeli settlements in the West Bank are not inconsistent with international law,” the Trump Administration reversed a deeply entrenched myth about Israeli “occupation.”
This and other long-standing myths demonizing Israelis as cruel oppressors are used to justify discriminatory economic and political policies towards Israel by much of the international community, including international courts of justice.
These myths are exploited by Israel’s enemies as a pretext to justify terror and mass murder of Jews, as well as calling for the violent overthrow of the Jewish state.
“Pompeo’s statement Monday that Israeli settlements are not illegal per se is the most significant shift in U.S. Middle East policy in the past generation,” wrote conservative commentator Caroline Glick.
She credited President Trump for exposing a false narrative that has gained global traction, and in his words, “has not advanced the cause of peace.”
Other voices of sanity joined in hailing the newly articulated White House policy, although there were many detractors.
“Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has just upended longstanding, widely held opinion about the legality of Israel’s West Bank settlements. Critics say he is off on the law, has radically broken with U.S. policy, and is undermining the pursuit of peace. Those critics are wrong on all scores,” Douglas Feith, a Middle East specialist who served on the National Security Council during the Reagan Administration, declared in National Review.
Feith noted that despite the brouhaha over the secretary of state’s announcement, “it was not radical for Pompeo to revive the Reagan policy.”
“What was radical and impeded diplomatic progress,” the Middle East specialist said, “was Obama’s reviving Carter’s legalistic criticism of Israel.”
“The claim that the settlements are illegal was flimsy in 1978 [under President Jimmy Carter] and is ridiculous in 2019, noted the Wall Street Journal in its article, “Exploding the Myth of Occupation.”
Characteristic of propaganda ploys, the myth of occupation rests on the psychology of “the big lie:” repeat it incessantly, unyieldingly, shamelessly and the big lie will eventually gain credibility.
Test this rule by raising any Middle East problem in liberal progressive circles today. Terror attacks, terror tunnels? Rockets fired by the thousands into civilian areas? Hamas, Hizbollah and Islamic Jihad threatening Israel with annihilation? Weekly violent riots at the Gaza security fence…?
The fatuous cure-all is “end the occupation.”
Critics ignore the fact that Arab terror against Jews was endemic long before the so-called occupation, and that Israel’s enemies have repeatedly rejected generous offers in exchange for peace, including the relinquishing of sizeable chunks of Israeli-captured land.
How Did We Get Here
The myth of occupation began in the late 1960s, after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War over Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The events flowing from that battle—and even earlier, from the 1948 War of Independence against Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Sudan—are pivotal to understanding the myths that dominate the Middle East today.
When Israel went into battle in June 1967 in a defensive war, its aim was to neutralize the Arab military threat to its existence. Following its victory, the Jewish state was plunged into a dilemma: what to do with the territorial gains of that victory?
Many Israelis hoped to trade most of the conquered territory for peace; they assumed that the stunning defeat suffered by the joint forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan would shock the Arab world into making peace with Israel. They were wrong.
The heads of eight Arab countries, including those that had lost land to Israel as the result of their failed war of annihilation, met at a summit in Khartoum, Sudan, in August 1967 to decide on a joint policy toward the Jewish State.
The Three NO’s
These eight nations agreed to the three principles that were to guide the hard-line stance of most of the Arab world for the next few decades: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel.
In response to Arab hostilities, Israel imposed military rule in the West Bank, and settlements began springing up in the lands that had been part of Israel since biblical times. Jewish settlements had existed in Yehuda and Shomron until 1949, when their occupants were expelled by the Jordanians in Israel’s War of Independence.
With the recapture of the West Bank, many Jews sought to return to their homes. Settlements built on hilltops also acted as observation posts in the event Arab belligerence escalated into war. Settlement activity expanded and today, many of the early settlements are now cities in their own right.
Although down the line, peace treaties were negotiated with Egypt (1981) and Jordan (1994), in exchange for returned land, for most of the Arab world, the three “no’s” of the Khartoum conference set the stage for protracted Arab belligerence and the rise to the Palestinian Liberation Movement.
Under Yasser Arafat, this terrorist organization unleashed decades of violence and bloodshed, launching the unprecedented claim that the disputed territories of the West Bank were “Palestinian territory” that Israel was “occupying illegally.”
Newly – Minted Nationhood
Ultimately enshrined in a United Nations Resolution, this claim was an outright baseless invention. No Palestinian nation existed then or previously. Moreover, according to the internationally accepted legal definition of military “occupation,” the term can apply only when a territory belonging to one sovereign nation has been taken over by another.
The last sovereign nation to hold authority over the territory of the West Bank was the Ottoman Empire; it renounced its legal rights to the land after the First World War. In 1922, The League of Nations, in line with the Balfour Declaration, called for the “close settlement” of Jews in the territory awarded to the British Mandate, which included all of the West Bank. This led to a Jewish population surge.
Although Jordan annexed this territory with its half a million Arabs (while expelling all the Jews) following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the international community and the entire Arab world refused to recognize Jordan’s sovereignty over these lands. Despite Jordan’s de facto rule, the West Bank was regarded as devoid of sovereign power.
The term “Palestinian people’ had yet to be coined. Most West Bank Arabs were Jordanian citizens and their descendants, or citizens from other Arab states who had migrated to this region in the 19th century, and identified themselves according to tribal, cultural and ethnic ties. They had never had an autonomous government and harbored no pretensions to being a nation.
In the 1967 war, Jordan ignored Israel’s warning not to get involved and joined Egypt and Syria in attacking the Jewish State. Over the course of the Six-Day War, Israel took back the entire West Bank including East Jerusalem, the Golan and the Gaza strip. Following an internationally imposed ceasefire, the Israeli army set up a military administration in these territories.
Jordan officially renounced its claims to the West Bank in 1988, clearing the way for the Arab League to appoint the newly formed PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), a terrorist entity committed to Israel’s destruction, as the representative of West Bank Arabs. This refugee population, increasingly radicalized, was now reinvented as “the Palestinian people,” with newly minted claims to nationhood.
The newly crafted historical ‘forgery’ accorded the Palestinian people a distinct national identity with historical ties to the West Bank. This new (but professedly “old”) people were supposedly entitled to a sovereign state of their own, carved out of the biblical heartland of Yehuda and Shomron, the millenia-old Jewish homeland.
Blocking this goal is the evil occupying power, the state of Israel, cruelly denying freedom and self determination to an “oppressed” people.
Secretary of State Pompeo rolled back this false narrative by pointing to the historic ties of the Jewish people to their land. In his words, the administration’s determination “is based on the unique facts, history, and circumstances presented by the establishment of [Israeli] settlements in the West Bank.”
“The White House policy statement is based on the historic ties of the Jewish people to Judea and Samaria. These ties lie at the heart of Jewish history and religion,” stressed syndicated columnist Cal Thomas.
“Now, if the European Union, whose hatred of Israel goes back to the shameless days of Nazi anti-Semitism and is now resurging, would only see the light and end its recently enacted policy to require ‘goods from illegal settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories to be labeled as such,” Thomas writes, “perhaps some real steps forward might occur.”
Why The Intense Focus on Settlements
Why has anti-Israel propaganda focused so intensely on attacking the settlements as illegal? The issue of their legality has for years been the defining issue of much of the international discourse about Israel. How did the crux of the Arab-Israeli conflict become all about settlements?
Perhaps that is because that line of argument calls Israel’s legitimacy into question, notes Douglas Feith in the above-cited National Review article. Asserting that the Jews have no right to live in an important part of the ancient Jewish homeland challenges their right to have created Israel in the first place.
Feith served as a Middle East specialist on the National Security Council during the Reagan years. He recalls in the article being asked by President Reagan in 1981 for his perspective on the conflict over Israeli settlements.
“Seeing that Carter invoked law simply as a stick for whacking Israel, Reagan rose to Israel’s defense, declaring he disagreed with Carter. As one of the three Middle East specialists on the National Security Council staff, I was asked for a short note on the subject for the president,” Feith recalled.
He writes that he had concurred with Reagan’s position that Israeli settlements are not illegal, stressing that the issue was actually a political question, not a legal one. “The U.S. recognizes no country’s sovereignty over the West Bank,” he noted. Calling Israel’s presence there an “occupation” whose legality can be debated is a misnomer and wholly unconstructive.
“The sovereignty issue is open and will not be closed until the parties to the conflict consent to a peace agreement,” Feith said he counseled President Reagan. “In the meantime, there is no law that bars Jews from settling on the West Bank, and no one should be excluded from living there simply on account of his nationality or religion.”
Obama Impeded Diplomatic Progress By Attacking Israel
In his last days in office, Obama took the Carter position at the United Nations, excoriating Israel for not halting the settlements. In so doing, he broke with a 35-year policy held by U.S. administrations not to repeat Carter’s scathing attack in a public forum.
That action crossed the boundaries of acceptable treatment toward a valued ally, and diplomatically isolated Israel— clearly Obama’s intention.
“Pompeo repudiated the unconstructive Carter-Obama policy by rejecting the claim of illegality. He bolstered Israel’s legitimacy. And he kept open the issue of how the parties should divide the West Bank in a peace deal, except to say that they should do so through mutual agreement,” Feith asserted.
What has consistently fueled the conflict, the Middle East expert said, is the effort to propagate the notion “that Israel is a vulnerable, alien presence that lacks roots, legitimacy, and moral confidence. In this way, Israel’s enemies hope that they can weaken the Jewish state, separate it from its U.S. ally, and ultimately destroy it.”
“By moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and declaring the West Bank settlements legal, Trump administration officials are strengthening U.S. ties to Israel,” Feith asserted.
In the vanquishing of the “eliminationists,” he added, “lies the best hope for a negotiated peace.”
Anti-Israel Sentiment Among Democrats Becoming Mainstream
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement triggered an avalanche of angry commentary in circles where false allegations about Israeli settlements being illegal have been adopted almost as an article of faith.
These allegations have served as the justification for a non-stop flood of condemnations of Israel in international forums, including the European Court of Justice last week.
This week saw a demonstration of how far anti-Israel poison has even penetrated the halls of the United States Congress, with the dispatch of an angry letter to Secretary of State Pompeo, signed by 106 House Democrats (out of 223). The letter demanded that he reverse his recent announcement that Israeli settlements are not illegal.
The letter was initiated by Andy Levin, a Jewish congressman from Michigan, and heavily backed by J Street, a virulently anti-Israel lobbying group. The large number of signatories—forty six per cent of House Democrats—indicates that anti-Israel views in the Democratic Party are becoming alarmingly mainstream.
The letter’s shrill tone reflected fury over President Trump’s strong show of support for Israel and the rights of the Jewish people. It slammed not only Pompeo’s announcement but other pro-Israel initiatives by the White House, including its moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem; closing the Palestinian mission in Washington and the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem; and halting aid to the West Bank and Gaza.
The letter said these actions have “discredited” the United States as an honest broker, severely damaged prospects for peace and endangered the security of America, Israel and the Palestinian people.
Voters are being advised to check the following website to determine if their congressmen signed the letter: 12119 Letter to SecState on Israeli settlements FINAL.pdf
A Wedge Issue in the Primaries
Rather than weaken public support for White House policy on the settlement issue, the letter might paradoxically have the opposite effect, former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren told Jerusalem Post.
He noted that the letter “highlights the difference between the two parties on Israel, something the Republicans might feel will work in their favor.”
“Think as if you are a member of the Trump administration,” the foreign affairs expert suggested. “You need to win in four or five battleground states to win reelection, and those four or five states have a strong Evangelical, pro-Israel presence. You need to mobilize them, and show them that if they don’t vote for Trump, they are going to get the guys who wrote this letter.”
“Trump officials are trying to redefine what it means to be pro-Israel,” Oren speculated. “The Democrats are lowering the standard for what is considered pro-Israel, while the Republicans are raising it. The Trump administration has an interest in highlighting those differences, as it did with Pompeo’s settlement declaration.”
Oren spelled out the ways in which pro-Israel Democrats and pro-Israel Republicans deeply diverge. “On the Democratic side, to be pro-Israel means supporting Israel’s right to exist, to defend itself, to be a Jewish state and to serve as a homeland to the Jewish people,” he said.
“At the same time, Democrats insist that the Palestinians deserve a homeland, the settlements are illegal, Jerusalem should be shared, there should be a just solution to the refugee problem, and throw in support for the Iranian nuclear deal.”
On the Republican side, Oren noted, being pro-Israel means something quite different.
“In addition to supporting Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, being pro-Israel as a Republican means affirming Israel’s capital as both east and west Jerusalem, Israel’s right to build settlements, to defend itself proactively, not only defensively.” Being pro-Israel if you’re a Republican, Oren added, means believing the United States should shun the Iranian deal.
“I think Pompeo wanted this,” Oren said of the Democrats’ letter to the Secretary of State. It “couldn’t be better” for the Trump administration, in terms of how it exposed the true affiliations of some congressmen who are deft at playing both sides.
Political analyst Jonathan Rynhold, quoted in the Post article, suggest that Pompeo’s declaration may be turning the settlements into “a wedge issue” between the two parties. “Opposing the White House declaration may become a litmus test for proving one’s bona fides as “a good Democrat” who supports the party’s basic values,” he said.
“Democratic candidates coming under pressure from the liberal wing of the party will likely be pressured to take a stand on the issue,” he predicted, “and it may even become an issue in the primaries.”