Welcome to FMEP’s Weekly Settlement & Annexation Report. To subscribe to this report, please click here.
April 2, 2021
- Biden Admin Downplays on Occupation, Avoids Criticizing Settlements
- New Insights Into Trump Consulate Closure Reveal Consequences for Settlement Policy
- Bonus Reads
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On March 31st, the Biden State Department released the annual “State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices,” eliciting immediate criticism for the report’s vague language downplaying Israel’s nearly 54-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip. This vagueness is in line with the Administration’s murky policy on all matters related to that occupation, including settlements. As a reminder, the report is designed to provide an ostensibly objective synopsis of how governments across the world perpetrate and handle human rights abuses. However, the report’s treatment of Israel and its role in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem is consistently a matter of controversy. In the pre-Trump era, the report was constantly attacked for including information critical of Israel coming both from international NGOs and from Israeli and Palestinian NGOs. During the Trump era, much of that critical information disappeared, as did references to occupation.
This year, many were hoping for/expecting the report to return to the pre-Trump status quo. Instead the report adopts an extraordinarily cautious approach with respect to Israel’s presence and actions in the West Bank and Gaza. This approach fails to roll back key Trump changes in the report and appears to validate key Trump policy changes.
Of special note (with respect to both the report and subsequent comments made by U.S. officials upon the report’s release):
1 – The Biden State Department opted to maintain the new format imposed on the report by the Trump Administration, with a section entitled “Israel, West Bank, and Gaza.” Under this new format, there is a section on Israel (looking at the practices of the Israeli government in sovereign Israeli territory, including East Jerusalem) and a separate section on the West Bank & Gaza (looking primarily at the practices of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and the “Israeli authorities in the West Bank”). Prior to the Trump era, the report and its sections were entitled “Israel and the Occupied Territories.” The Trump administration adopted the new section titles in its 2017 report and completed its elimination of the word “occupation” in its 2018 report. The Biden Administration’s decision to continue this new format was widely reported on by the press.
When asked as to whether the choice to maintain same titles was indicative of a broader Biden choice to maintain the Trump-era occupation denialism, at first the Biden Administration attempted to steer clear of committing to any kind of policy choice on the matter, with a State Department official insisting that using geographic descriptors was simply an attempt to be clear, and that the report is not a place to make judgments about Israel’s sovereign borders. When pressed further on the matter, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price affirmed (in diplomatic-ese that can only be understood as being crafted to avoid stating that the Biden Administration has taken its own position on the matter) the Biden Administration does understand the areas to be occupied, saying:
“…it is a historical fact that Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights after the 1967 war. You mentioned the Human Rights Report that we rolled out yesterday. In fact, the 2020 Human Rights Report does use the term ‘occupation’ in the context of the current status of the West Bank. This has been the longstanding position of previous administrations of both parties over the course of many decades.”
2 – The Biden Administration continues its refusal to directly criticize or condemn Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank (despite the fact that settlements are a primary driver of human rights violations in the West Bank). Immediately following his clarification of the Biden Administration’s view on occupation (in response to a journalist’s direct question), the State Department spokesman was further pressed to elucidate whether, based on the (weak) acknowledgement that the West Bank is in fact occupied, the administration views Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal. Instead of making a clear statement, Price adopted what has so far been the consistent line from the Biden Administration on any question where a direct, coherent answer would require it to criticizing Israeli behavior vis-a-vis the Palestinians, saying:
“…We – as you have heard me say before, we continue to encourage all sides to avoid actions – both sides, I should say – to avoid actions that would put the two-state solution further out of reach. Again, our ultimate goal here is to facilitate – to help bring about – a two-state solution because it is the best path to preserve Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state while bestowing on the Palestinians their legitimate aspirations of sovereignty and dignity in a state of their own.”
During the April 1st State Department press briefing, Spokesperson Ned Price was asked once again to make a clear statement of U.S. policy vis-a-vis Israeli settlements. The interaction went:
“QUESTION: All right. On the Middle East. Yesterday Shaun tried to nail you down without success – not his fault – on the question of settlements and the occupation. And I want to take another stab at it today, because frankly it’s confused a lot of people and it’s – your position is, to be frank, clear as mud, right? You said in response to him yesterday that, on settlement activity, that you want both sides to refrain from any actions that might hurt or will hurt a two-state solution. Does settlement activity in the West Bank or construction in East Jerusalem hurt prospects for a two-state solution or not?
MR PRICE: Matt, on this, I want to be clear. And we have said this from the start. We believe when it comes to settlement activity that Israel should refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and that undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution. That includes the annexation of territory. That includes settlement activity. We’ve been equally clear when it comes to the potential actions of the Palestinians, whether that is incitement to violence, providing compensation for individuals in prison for acts of terrorism. That, too, moves us further away from a two-state solution. Our goal in all of this is to advance the prospects for that two-state solution.
QUESTION: Okay. So that’s a little better, I think, or a little more clear, not like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. But does this administration intend to be as forceful in its opposition or criticism of settlement activity as the Obama administration was? Do you know?
MR PRICE: We intend to do everything we can to advance the prospects for a two-state solution. We intend to do that with the knowledge that it is in the interests of – consistent with the interest and values of the United States, but importantly, consistent with the values and the interests of Israelis and also Palestinians. This is something that successive administrations have sought to do; it’s something that we will seek to do.”
3 – The Biden Administration did not reverse Trump’s recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights or Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It did imply that the final status of Jerusalem should be negotiated between parties.
In a deeply reported piece in The Times of Israel, the repercussions (and policy aims) of the Trump Administration’s 2018 move to shutter the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem – which since the start of the peace process had functioned in part as a de facto U.S. Embassy to the Palestinians – were laid bare. Specifically, the Times of Israel reports:
“Before the merger, the consulate had an officer charged with dealing with the settlers themselves along with their interactions with Palestinians. Following the merger, the latter position was dissolved, diplomats said. A separate position for a political officer in Tel Aviv assigned to tracking and reporting on the various Israeli government offices’ policies and statements regarding the settlements remained in place.
‘They [the Trump Administration’s political appointees, including Ambassador Friedman] wanted Israel to increase its strength and power in the settlements and the West Bank and to silence the policy-makers and bureaucrats on the ground who might — based on their experience, knowledge and relationships — poke holes in the fantasy narrative that they had been building publicly,’ said one former diplomat.”
The Times of Israel interviewed former Ambassador Friedman for the article, and got further confirmation of the emphasis he put on bringing Israeli settlers (who live outside of Israel’s sovereign borders) under the domain of the U.S. Embassy in Israel – a symbolic move to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the settlements. The article relates:
“The envoy [Ambassador Friedman] lamented an old policy that had barred embassy officials tasked with monitoring settlements from even crossing into the West Bank. Friedman also claimed that those in the consulate had virtually no contact with settlers, even though they were tasked with dealing with them — a claim that was vigorously denied by the ex-diplomats interviewed.”
- “PODCAST: Will this Palestinian matriarch get to keep her Jerusalem home?” (+972 Magazine)
- “From Qatamon to Sheikh Jarrah: Israel’s Theft of Palestinian Properties in Jerusalem” (PLO-NAD)
- “Briefing: EU Taxpayer-Funded Research Programmes and Illegal Israeli Settlement Entities” (European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine)