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  • Israeli supporters of Donald Trumps wave US and Israeli flags to support his candidacy for the presidential in Jerusalem on October 27, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90
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Trump, Biden, International Law and Politics

Dr Matthijs de Blois - 1 December 2020

Like it or not, the USA plays an important role in shaping opinion on the way the world looks at Israel, the Jewish people, the Israel/Palestine conflict and the Middle East.

“President Trump’s unique approach has been to challenge existing legal and political paradigms”

President Trump’s unique approach has been to challenge existing legal and political paradigms. The most prominent example was the Secretary of State’s announcement a year ago (often referred to as ‘the Pompeo Doctrine’) that ‘[t]he establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law’. This approach was reflected in the Peace to Prosperity plan revealed earlier this year, envisaging investment in Palestinian autonomy and an agreement in which Israel retains control and sovereignty over parts of the ‘West Bank’.

“Should Joe Biden become the next President, it is likely that he will return to the approach taken under the Obama/Kerry administration”

Should Joe Biden become the next President, it is likely that he will return to the approach taken under the Obama/Kerry administration: that the 1949 Armistice Lines are borders, that all settlements are illegal, and that Israel must comply with its perceived obligations under international law before peace can be achieved in the region. These are the legal assumptions underlying UN Security Council Resolution 2334 (December 2016).

In our view, this would be a tragic, missed opportunity. While Trump’s style has been abrasive and his administration may not have always clearly explained their legal reasoning, they have rightly challenged the world to re-examine the ‘consensus paradigm’ that Israel is no more than an (illegal) occupier of Palestinian territory.

“In our view, this would be a tragic, missed opportunity”

This paradigm is founded on an unbalanced account of history. It wrongly ignores the radical and violent rejectionism in Palestinian society, and it rides roughshod over Israel’s legitimate interests and rights.

Worse, it has created perverse incentives. Basically, under the Obama/Kerry approach, negotiations on key issues like Jerusalem, borders and settlements are pointless as the PLO (which still advocates the destruction of the Jewish State of Israel) has no incentive to make any compromises whatsoever. If a breakthrough is to be achieved, these old assumptions must be reviewed. When we do so, we realise that they are based primarily on political positions taken by major powers in the 1960s-1980s – not sound legal analysis.

One might consider the Obama/Kerry approach and UNSC Resolution 2334 in particular, as the climax of a failing ‘two-state’ policy. The US allowed this resolution to be adopted by the Security Council just before Christmas in late December 2016. In the final days of his Presidency, the resolution was a nasty stab in Israel’s back, an expression of Obama’s frustration and anger at the way (in his view) the Israeli government had blocked his Administration’s efforts to broker a peace agreement. But those efforts were bound to fail, just as the EU’s insistence on a negotiated two-state solution is bound to fail.

The other main aspect of the Obama/Kerry Middle East policy that Trump turned on its head was the approach towards Iran. Trump took America out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which he and his advisers described as one of the worst deals of the last century. Biden has made clear that he will re-enter this deal. For Israel, this is a nightmare scenario. Iran is Israel’s existential threat #1. The JCPOA releases Iran from the sanctions that have crippled its economy, thus enabling Iran to refill its coffers and speed up its production of nuclear weapons, which it has declared it will direct at both the Great Satan (USA) and Little Satan (Israel).

Whoever wins the US elections, a change is occurring in the Middle East, and it is questionable whether a change in leadership in the USA will turn it back. Looking at the normalisation initiatives with Israel as currently being undertaken by Arabic/Islamic states such as Bahrain, Sudan and the UAE, and the increasing number of states that intend to move their embassies to Jerusalem, it is clear that there is a new wind in the air.

Many sense that Israel is no longer the problem, but possibly even the solution to the problem.

At thinc. we argue that it is time to go back to the basics. International law should do what it is intended to do: respect the sovereign equality of states and advance cooperation and friendly relations between nations. This means: no longer just condemning Israel, but looking at where Israel can support and stimulate development, growth and prosperity in the region – for Jews, Arabs, Israelis, Christians, Muslims, Balloch, Kurds, Syriacs, Armenians and all the many other ethnic and religious groups in the region.

“Many sense that Israel is no longer the problem, but possibly even the solution to the problem”

For more information, visit www.thinc.info

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