Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has resurrected a campaign promise to annex all Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and the Jordan Valley if his Likud Party wins the Israeli parliamentary elections scheduled for September 17.
“With God’s help,” Netanyahu said, “we will extend Jewish sovereignty to all the settlements as part of the (biblical) land of Israel, as part of the state of Israel.” His use of the term “Jewish sovereignty” instead of “Israeli sovereignty” and his reference to “the land of Israel” were deliberate. Netanyahu is attempting to normalize the idea that Jewish individuals living anywhere in the world hold a super-nationality that trumps Palestinian indigeneity on either side of the 1967 “green line” demarcating the internationally recognized border between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
The false notion that Jewish citizens of other states owe allegiance to “the land of Israel” is apparently not problematic for Netanyahu as long as it is in the service of his reelection. Less fashionable are security justifications for Israel’s hold on the occupied Palestinian territories, though Netanyahu also cited this pretense in the context of Israel’s decision to retain the Jordan Valley. Netanyahu prefers to rely on a narrow understanding of Judeo-Christian scripture to line up the nationalist-religious parties to support him and Likud.
Netanyahu’s electioneering is not without meaning. His remarks are consistent with the Knesset’s passage in July 2018 of the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People. The legislation gives constitutional authority to the notion that Jews have an exclusive right to exercise self-determination in the geographical area lying between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea—or any other place over which Israel has extended its sovereignty.
A strong incentive exists for any new Israeli government to annex the 60 percent of the West Bank controlled by Israel’s settlement enterprise while the Trump administration is in power and before U.S. elections in 2020. A new administration may be less amenable to such violations of international law. Thus far, President Donald Trump’s Middle East team has proven to be pliant, if not complicit, in Israeli plans to maintain control over the greater part of the occupied territories. This has been most evident in the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and its recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.
The surprise announcement last week of the departure of Trump’s special envoy on the Middle East peace process, Jason Greenblatt, is unlikely to change the trajectory of U.S. policy. If Greenblatt will be remembered for anything, it is for a speech he gave before the United Nations Security Council in which he referred to international law and the “hundreds of UN resolutions” on Israeli-Palestinian peace as “the constant drumbeat of tired rhetoric.”
As for the thorny issue of Jerusalem, Greenblatt echoed Netanyahu by asserting that “no international consensus or interpretation of international law will persuade the United States or Israel that a city in which Jews have lived and worshipped for nearly 3,000 years and has been the capital of the Jewish State for 70 years, is not—today and forever—the capital of Israel.”
Both U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who has enjoyed an outsized influence on U.S. Mideast policy, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have also been guided by biblical scripture in their understanding of Washington’s policy priorities for Israel and Palestine. Last spring, Pompeo broke with decades of practice by being the first secretary of state to officially visit the Western Wall while accompanied by Netanyahu, thus giving a nod of support to Israel’s assertion of sovereignty over Arab East Jerusalem. During that trip, Pompeo stated in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network that his “task” at the State Department is “informed by [his] understanding of [his] faith.” Replying to a question as to whether God had sent Trump to protect the Jewish people from Iran, like Queen Esther in the Bible, he replied it was “possible.”
The insertion of Judeo-Christian faith into official U.S. Mideast policy is dangerous for the prospects of peace. It has not gone unnoticed by Palestinian Muslims and Christians, who watched via satellite as Trump announced his intention to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem only weeks before Christmas last year.
As problematic as the infusion of religion into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been more concerned with finding ways to respond to both the U.S. funding cuts and Israel’s withholding of Palestinian tax revenues. U.S.-sponsored peace talks have been abandoned in favor of strategies for separating the West Bank from Israel and ending Palestinian dependency on the Israelis and the Oslo framework’s economic protocol.
In July, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced that the PA intended to suspend all agreements with Israel. A committee composed of the leaders of various political factions came together to look at the legal, economic, and political implications of separating from Israel. One economic measure that has already been taken this year involves ending Palestinian patient transfers to Israeli hospitals. This is apparently having a negative impact on the functioning of these hospitals, which receive approximately $100 million per year in reimbursements from the PA.
Other initiatives have also been implemented, including ending PA recognition of Israel’s civil administration in parts of the West Bank designated as Area C, over which Israel has full security and civil control under the Oslo II Accord, and treating all of the occupied West Bank as Palestinian sovereign territory. The practical effect of this is unclear in light of the PA’s inability to prevent Israeli demolitions in Wadi al-Hummus, a Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem that is supposed to be under Palestinian civil and security authority pursuant to the Oslo Accords.
With a Trump administration unable to see the perils of having the Israeli-Palestinian conflict devolve into a religious one, or of having Israel extend its sovereignty over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians, it will be left to the next U.S. administration to try to come up with a way to repair the damage that will have been done. If there is anything good in the present situation it lies in the absolute clarity of the moral choice: The United States will either have to accept conquest as a lawful way for states to expand their borders; or will it have to uphold international legality and the rule of law.
Hopefully, for the next administration, the answer won’t come down to one of biblical interpretation.