by Lara Friedman
Starting from virtually the moment President Trump took office in January 2017, he and his Middle East team began implementing a far-reaching transformation of U.S. policy vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinians. Their intention: to erase the very assumptions upon which the Oslo peace process, and the consensus around the need for a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, are based.
Most conspicuously, by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the embassy, and defunding and delegitimizing UNRWA, they have sought to take the issues of Jerusalem and refugees off the negotiating table.
In parallel, the Trump administration has adopted policies that remove the Palestinians’ chair from the negotiating table: shuttering the PLO mission in Washington, closing the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, cutting off bilateral assistance, adopting the “pay-to-slay” narrative that paints the PLO and PA as supporters of terror, and working assiduously to find other Arab nations that will act on the Palestinians’ behalf. Collectively these amount to the elimination of the official U.S.-Palestinian bilateral relationship that started with the Oslo agreement, relegating the Palestinians to an internal Israeli issue dealt with exclusively in the context of U.S.-Israel relations.
This week’s release of the U.S. Department of State’s 2019 Human Rights Report has drawn public focus, belatedly, to another element of the ongoing transformation: the systematic re-writing of U.S. policy regarding the status of the territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 War and the Israeli settlements in these territories.
When Trump took office in January 2017, it should have been clear that a shift in U.S. policy vis-à-vis occupation and settlements was highly probable, if for no other reason than the fact that Trump campaign spokesman and advisor on Israel, David Friedman, was immediately nominated to be the next U.S. ambassador to Israel. Friedman has long been a prominent and energetic advocate for and supporter of Israeli settlements. He has never hidden his belief that the West Bank, which he often refers to using the biblical terms preferred by the settlers, “Judea and Samaria,” belongs to Israel (or to the Jewish people), that settlements are legitimate and should grow, and that the occupation does not exist.
Yet, in early February 2017, former Obama advisor and former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro published a piece in Foreign Policy suggesting that on settlements, “the Trump administration, after only two weeks, has landed in roughly the same place as each of its predecessors on Israeli-Palestinian issues.” In April 2017, shortly after Friedman was confirmed as ambassador, Elliott Abrams weighed in with a similar analysis, noting that on Trump’s approach on settlements, “What has emerged is a good policy: sensible, flexible, and realistic. Which is to say, it’s a lot like Bush policy.” (Abrams went on to officially join the Trump administration in January 2019).
Such facile analyses offered a welcome palliative to those who yearned to believe that things weren’t as bad as more pragmatic experts suggested. They also offered useful political cover for and distraction from the fundamental shifts in U.S. policy toward land and settlements that were already taking place—and that picked up steam well before the end of Trump’s first year in office.
These shifts included a green light for a surge in settlement construction and other Israeli actions that together represented an acceleration in the de facto annexation of the West Bank. Indeed, barely a year after Trump took office, a settler leader credited him for the opening of the settlement floodgates, declaring: “We have to thank God he sent Trump to be president of the United States…We are very, very, very happy with the Trump administration.”
These shifts also included an unprecedented new policy of publicly embracing and legitimizing settlements and their leaders. Evidence of the Trump administration’s new attitude included the embassy’s May 2017 invitation for a settler leader to attend a Trump speech, the embassy’s invitation for settler leaders to attend its 2017 U.S. Independence Day celebration, and Friedman’s July 2017 public trip to a settlement to attend a high-profile wedding.
If all those signs weren’t enough, in September 2017, Friedman publicly described the situation in the West Bank as the “alleged occupation” and said that “settlements are part of Israel.” The following spring, the State Department released its 2017 annual human rights report—with the references to “occupied” scrubbed from the title and erased from nearly all of the text of the section on the West Bank and Gaza. According to the Jerusalem Post, on the heels of his September reference to the “alleged occupation,” Friedman had “reportedly directed the State Department in December to stop using the term altogether.”
Last October, Friedman participated in a public event convened in the settlement of Ariel. The event, which featured Israeli settlers and a handful of Palestinians, promoted the view that the key to peace is not political agreements or negotiations. Rather, peace would come from economic and business cooperation between Palestinians (living under Israeli occupation, governed by Israeli military and military law designed to promote the interests and needs of Israel, entirely disenfranchised from the powers that control their lives) and settlers (living in settlements built on land taken from Palestinians, enjoying all the entitlements and protections of Israeli citizenship and law, and with representatives and allies at every level of Israeli government).
This approach, not coincidentally, exemplifies a vision of “peace” based on promises of improved quality of life for individual Palestinians, de-coupled from any pretense of helping Palestinians end an occupation that the United States no longer believes to exist, or achieve national self-determination that the United States no longer supports. Tweeting about that event, Friedman suggested that this kind of cooperation was precisely the kind of opportunity that the Palestinian people truly want and could have, if only their leadership would listen.
Last month, Friedman doubled down on this tactic. Appearing as a keynote speaker at the “Israeli-Palestinian International Economic Forum,” an event convened in Jerusalem by a U.S. evangelical group dedicated to promoting settlements, Friedman argued that progress on the political front
is never a substitute to delay the opportunity to provide for the Jews and the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria who are entitled to the very same things that we all want for our families, for our children, for the people we love. We have to move forward and that’s what this conference is all about.
All of which brings us to this week’s news: the omission of the word “occupied” from the West Bank and Gaza section of the Department of State’s 2018 Human Rights Report.
If this omission came as a surprise to any of the “experts” who follow Israeli-Palestinian issues, it suggests either an unconscionable level of ignorance and denial, or a degree of disingenuousness that borders on pathological.
After all: this choice of language does not signal a shift in Trump Administration policy. Rather, it reflects a shift that has already taken place, carried out by the Trump administration openly over the past two years, as part of a remarkably successful effort to bring U.S. policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians into close alignment with the views and aspirations of the settlers and their allies both in the United States and in Israel.
This is part one of a two-part article. You can read part two here.