Mike Pompeo's announcement: a grand gesture – for now

What the U.S.Secretary of State did was a significant gesture. What happens next will be up to Israel.

A general view shows the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit in the West Bank April 7, 2019 (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
A general view shows the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit in the West Bank April 7, 2019
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech on Monday on the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria not being illegal was ready to go more than two weeks ago. There was even a date to deliver it: on November 12 at 11:30 a.m. Washington time.
But then that morning at 4:30 a.m. in Israel, an Air Force fighter jet dropped a bomb through a window in Gaza City, killing Bahaa Abu al-Ata, a top Islamic Jihad commander. Israel came under heavy missile fire – 400 rockets pounded the South over two days – and the State Department made the decision to postpone the announcement.
This time it was set for Monday afternoon in Washington. Pompeo opened with some remarks about Iraq and Iran, and then dropped the bombshell: the administration was rolling back the policy that President Jimmy Carter had started and President Barack Obama had continued, that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are a violation of international law.
Having Pompeo make the announcement seemed to be more than just coincidence. Past gestures to Israel were announced by President Donald Trump, as was the case with the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on December 6, 2017, and in March, when Trump tweeted that he was recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
This time, though, it was Pompeo. The reason seemed to be twofold. If Trump had made the announcement, or alternatively if his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, had, it would have been viewed immediately as a political gift to a fellow world leader – Benjamin Netanyahu – who is in political trouble.
When it comes from the State Department though – a place that has traditionally been viewed as the most anti-Israel institution in the US government – it carries extra weight. The fact that it was a conclusion reached by a team of professional lawyers and civil servants removes some of the political stripes.
This does not mean that Friedman wasn’t involved. He was. But he, too, understood that it was best that the review be conducted by State’s legal team and not someone like himself, who once served on the board of a pro-settlement organization. This way, even though the announcement will still be attacked, it will be done in the most objective way possible.
The question is, does it really change anything. On the one hand, there is value in having the US, still the most powerful nation in the world, stand by Israel’s long-time position on settlements. On the other hand, it moved its embassy to Jerusalem and barely any countries followed. To expect some sort of international legalization flood now would be naïve.
On the other hand, who is to say that it will even last? Moving the Obama goal post like Pompeo did this week can be rolled back by the president who comes next.
Imagine, for example, that a Democrat gets sworn in as president on January 20, 2021, and an hour later goes on live TV from the Oval Office and says: “Remember that Pompeo announcement from November 2019? Well, we take that back. Settlements are illegal.”
Who is to stop them?
On the ground, it also won’t really matter. Israel might have a friend it can lean on the next time some international institution or news organization decides to accuse it of violating international law, but none of that is going to change the fierce hatred Israelis encounter when visiting college campuses, for example.
Just ask Dani Dayan, counsel-general of Israel in New York, who gave a talk on settlements at Harvard Law School last week and had about 50 students get up and walk out. You can also ask former IDF officer Eyal Dror, who came to University of Warwick in England this week and was met by large protests even though his lecture was about “Good Neighbor,” the IDF operation to bring wounded Syrians into Israel for medical treatment.
If Israel wants to try to take advantage of this change in US policy, the way forward is to get the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table.
With all due respect to the work Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt put into the so-called “Deal of the Century,” Israel doesn’t really need the plan. Israel is a strong country that can determine what it wants for itself and by itself. It doesn’t need America to come and lay down a plan, no matter how beneficial it will be for Israel.
But Israel has to decide what it wants. If it wants to find a way to end the conflict with the Palestinians, there are steps it could take to get Mahmoud Abbas to the table. If it doesn’t, then it can keep doing what it does now, which is not that much.
What Pompeo did was a significant gesture. What happens next will be up to Israel.
SPEAKING OF Israel deciding what it wants: we the people received another sad display on Wednesday of how the supposed leaders of this country – better to call them politicians since they do not really lead – chose petty politics over us.
Sometimes it really is that simple.
Let’s break it down. Netanyahu lost the September 17 election. His Likud Party received 32 seats while Blue and White received 33. Nevertheless, Netanyahu was smart and quickly aligned himself with the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties and  , creating an impenetrable bloc of 55. He then called on Benny Gantz to come join him in a unity government.
It was absurd when it happened and it remains absurd. In a normal situation, the two large parties sit with one another – especially when they have no real ideological disagreements like Likud and Blue and White – and create a plan, draft guidelines for the new government, and invite other parties to come and join assuming they accept the guidelines.
The problem is that Netanyahu wanted to be prime minister first so when the indictment comes – as it did Thursday night – he will be prime minister. Basically, because of Netanyahu’s legal troubles, the country couldn’t get what it deserves and needs: a government that consists of Likud and Blue and White.
This does not mean that Gantz was faultless. He made plenty of mistakes along the way. Avigdor Liberman, for example, announced on Wednesday that he never planned to support a minority government. Nevertheless, Gantz believed for weeks that the Yisrael Beytenu leader would, and he spent most of his time with the mandate trying to make it happen. That was a waste of time that didn’t go anywhere.
In addition, the negotiations he held with the Likud never really moved anywhere, and Gantz seemed to suffer from the same problem he suffered from throughout the last two election campaigns – appearing as someone who doesn’t want the job. Netanyahu fought tooth and nail – and ugly, especially when it came to the racist and divisive comments he made about Arabs – but he showed a passion. Gantz has yet to.
Will a third election within a year change anything? I don’t know, but based on the current political map, probably not.
The problem is that we can’t simply sit around and wait while politicians play their games. Children are getting run over at crosswalks, people are stuck in hospital beds in hallways and cafeterias since there is no room in the wards, and rockets are raining down on residents of the North and the South. The cost of living is rising, and there are still hundreds of thousands of Israelis who can’t get married here because they are not halachically Jewish.
Our politicians showed us this week that none of this matters, that we the people don’t matter. The politicians care about one thing and one thing only: themselves.
They have the period of 21 days now to prove me wrong.