Did the US just recognize Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank? – analysis

Ask the Palestinians and their answer would be a resounding “yes.”

 U.S Ambassador to Israel David M. Friedman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign agreements to further binational scientific and technological cooperation in a special ceremony held at Ariel University on October 28, 2020. (photo credit: MATTY STERN / US EMBASSY JERUSALEM)
U.S Ambassador to Israel David M. Friedman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign agreements to further binational scientific and technological cooperation in a special ceremony held at Ariel University on October 28, 2020.
Did the United States just recognize Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements during Wednesday’s low-key ceremony at Ariel University announcing joint scientific cooperation?
Ask the Palestinians and their answer would be a resounding “yes.”
They were not silent about it either.
PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi charged that the event that took place in the settlement of Ariel, in Samaria, was “a clear recognition of Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territory.”
The ceremony appeared to be about science, but in effect, what the US did was to pledge not to distinguish in its dealings between sovereign and non-sovereign Israel. Effectively, it was a US pledge of normalization, which its opponents raised to the level of annexation.
Laura Friedman, president of the US-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, charged: “To be clear: this is, in effect, Trump admin[istration’s] official recognition of Israeli sovereignty over [the] West Bank.”
But if something as momentous as annexation has just taken place, where was the celebratory clinking of champagne glasses on the Israeli Right, along with the multiple congratulatory declarations?
Some of the right-wing silence, of course, can be chalked up to the fact that two of the leading settler politicians were not invited to the event – Yesha Council head David Elhayani and Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan.
Only nine of some 22 leaders came to the ceremony and stayed to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. One of the nine was Ariel Mayor Eli Shviro, in whose city the event was held. The other was Efrat Council head Oded Revivi, well known as a Netanyahu supporter. Both men were among the few to speak about the historic nature of the ceremony and its importance as a way station on the road to sovereignty.
MK Bezalel Smotrich (Yamina), who is cochairman of the Knesset’s Land of Israel Caucus and a leading sovereignty proponent, took to Twitter not to laud the moment but to attack Netanyahu for boycotting the Yesha Council.
The Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria received more attention when it advanced plans for 5,288 settler homes, even though, pragmatically speaking, it will take time before construction can actually begin.
Part of that is the sense of betrayal many in the community feel when it comes to the subject of annexation. First, they were promised the full annexation of West Bank settlements. Then, Netanyahu deferred to US President Donald Trump’s annexation plan, which settlers believed endangered some 15 settlements and the outposts. And just when the Right thought the promised annexation would be executed, they learned that sovereignty had been suspended in favor of normalization deals with Arab states. Even worse, those deals appeared to revive language the Right thought had been buried long ago, such as a sudden renewed focus on the Green Line, which is a reference Israel’s pre-1967 frontier.
The notion that one could exchange annexation of all settlements for a Trump administration decision to eliminate a territorial clause in three agreements on scientific cooperation might seem like way too little within that context. In some ways, it is akin to trying to exchange a marriage with a trip to Hawaii and hoping your girlfriend is satisfied.
The territorial clause written in the scientific agreements inked in the 1970s barred US funding from “geographic areas that came under the administration of the government of Israel after June 5, 1967.”
Put in geographic language, that meant Israeli entities in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights were boycotted and could not benefit from US funding.
It was a particularly problematic matter for Ariel University, the only Israeli university located in a West Bank settlement.
The change is significant, but eliminating a territorial clause from the agreements is not tantamount to annexation.
Israeli law has not been applied to the West Bank, which remains under Israeli military and civilian rule. Israel annexed east Jerusalem after the Six Day War, a move it cemented in 1980. It also annexed the Golan in 1981, a move that the Trump administration has recognized.
Wednesday’s ceremony did not change the status of the settlements under Israeli law, nor did it amount to US recognition of Israeli sovereignty there.
But in spite of the protests on the Right, the extent to which it establishes normalization is not a small matter. Normalization is the default position on the Right. In the absence of annexation, the strategy is de facto annexation through normalizing life as much as possible in Judea and Samaria. This includes erasing as much as possible the difference between one side of the Green Line and the other.
On Wednesday, the US picked up on that normalization philosophy and laid it out clearly in its statement to the media when it stated that “geographic restrictions are no longer consistent with US policy” in Jerusalem, the Golan and the West Bank.
There are those who chalked up the event to either last-minute electioneering by Trump to entice US Jewish voters and/or Christian Evangelical ones. Then, there is the argument that there is a rush to cement Trump’s legacy in case of an electoral defeat on November 3 to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Ashrawi charged that there is “a mad rush to provide Israel with deliverables before January 2021, including normalization, economic benefits, and endorsement of annexation.”
The left-wing group Peace Now also accused US officials of “scrambling to act before the Trump administration fails.”
But the initiative to eliminate the territorial clause predated the elections, and its impact goes beyond the cosmetic or the election gimmick.
Among the benefits of US-supported annexation, had it occurred, is the extent to which the application of sovereignty is an antidote to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
It is difficult for the US and Israel to rail against attempts to boycott areas beyond the pre-1967 lines when they themselves distinguish between the territory on either side of that boundary.
The agreement to suspend annexation, had, in a way, left that territory vulnerable. The US decision to normalize dealings with West Bank and east Jerusalem territory goes a long way to defending that territory from boycotts in the absence of annexation.
It is not by accident that Netanyahu linked the Ariel event to a stand against settlement boycotts, when he stated: “To those malevolent boycotters, I have a simple message today: You are wrong and you will fail.”
The Trump administration has often been accused of deliberately reversing Obama administration policy, and Wednesday’s event could also be seen in that light.
Former US president Barack Obama had a no-tolerance policy for settlements, an attitude that extended to Ariel University, whose students he barred from a Tel Aviv speech during his visit to Israel in 2013.
But Obama made a lasting mark on that debate just one month before he left office by not vetoing, in December 2016, UN Security Council Resolution 2334. It called on UN member states to distinguish in their dealings with between Israel and the territory over the pre-1967 lines. In that way, the resolution legitimized the boycott of West Bank settlements and Israeli entities in east Jerusalem and the Golan.
In the aftermath of the suspension of West Bank annexation plans, opponents of the settlements have doubled down on this clause.
This week, the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee debated a report by UN special rapporteur Michael Lynk, which asked that the General Assembly and the UN Security Council seek ways to enforce that clause, including by fully boycotting the settlements. The UN Human Rights Council now routinely calls for an arms embargo against Israel as a result, in part, of its presence over the pre-1967 lines, to say nothing of the blacklist it has compiled of companies operating there.
The Trump administration’s decision to normalize its dealings with Israeli entities over the Green Line can be seen as a direct response to UN Resolution 2334. It is a move that can be used by Israel to shore up its defense against any such UN or international diplomatic assault.
It is now possible, according to Politico, that the Trump administration could cement that normalization by also eliminating a State Department policy of not listing Israel on the passports of US citizens born in Jerusalem. The State Department directive on that matter specifically makes a territorial distinction that is at odds with the policy the US outlined Wednesday.
These Trump administration moves, while not indicating acceptance of sovereignty, go as far as they can in recognizing Israeli legal rights to territory beyond the pre-1967 lines, while attempting to adhere to its promise to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain not to suspend annexation.