The United Nations Human Rights office has made public a long-awaited catalogue of 112 companies doing business in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The blacklist, which was four years in the making and released last Wednesday, sent the Israeli government, members of the U.S. Congress, and the White House into a frenzy.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in particular, had some choice words for the Human Rights Council, which he characterized as a “discredited” body, saying that the decision to publicize “only confirms the unrelenting anti-Israel bias so prevalent at the United Nations.”
Pompeo’s reaction was curious given that the U.S. secretary has green-lit Israeli annexation of the West Bank, declared that the settlements do not constitute a violation of international law, and routinely endorsed Israel’s claim over the territory it occupies — or in keeping with Pompeo’s logic, doesn’t occupy. Yet if this is all aimed at erasing the distinction between Israel and the West Bank, what differentiates companies doing business in the settlements from companies doing business in Israel proper? If the UN or any other party had just published a list of companies doing business in Israel, would the reaction have been the same?
The outrage, rather, stems from an awareness in the U.S. and Israel that the rest of the world does not see it the same way they do, and the underlying fear that Israel has marched irreversibly down a path in which the UN response is only the beginning of things to come.
Over the past 52 years, every Israeli government has upheld a policy of settling its citizens in the occupied West Bank (and before 2005 in the Gaza Strip), in contravention of international law, which prohibits this practice. While the rationale behind this policy varied somewhat between governments on different sides of the political spectrum, and the intensity of settlement activity has waxed and waned over time, it has continued on inexorably.
The effect of this — and the motivation for many proponents — has been to prevent the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. And it has unquestionably succeeded. But doing so does not eliminate the Palestinian question. As long as Israel has no intention of granting citizenship to millions of Palestinians, and the Palestinians do not vanish into thin air, they will simply remain right-less and stateless people living under Israeli rule.
There is a name for this system of government, in which the extent of rights and privileges are allocated on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity, that Israel is not eager to adopt: “apartheid.” And for decades, everyone has known this would be the result of Israeli policy in the occupied territories if the conflict was not resolved in one way or another.
Israel is also aware that there are diplomatic consequences to creating this type of regime — a lesson demonstrated by South Africa. As long as there was a diplomatic process in place that could have led to the creation of a Palestinian state, then Israel was able to, in large part, hold off these repercussions. (In fact, many still advocate continuing to negotiate for its own sake, irrespective of a resolution.)
That is no longer the case.
This leaves Israel with two choices: either the country can coerce the Palestinians to give up on their demands for political and civil rights and/or a sovereign state of their own; or Israel simply formalizes its apartheid regime and carries on, hoping to weather the storm.
At the moment it appears to be trying to do both. In coordination with the Trump administration, a “peace plan” was crafted that is essentially a document outlining the terms of Palestinian surrender. Predictably, the Palestinian leadership — backed by 94 percent of Palestinians in the occupied territories — rejected it outright. In order to break this rejection, immense pressure is being brought to bear on the Palestinians’ already weakened institutions.
Indeed, this was the motivation behind several initiatives taken by the Trump administration over the past three years, including stripping the Palestinian Authority of funding, halting aid to the United Nations’ agency for Palestinian refugees, and closing the Palestine Liberation Organization’s diplomatic office in Washington, among others.
As Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, pointed out early in the Trump presidency, the administration’s policy appeared to be designed to roll back the clock to the 1980s, when the idea of a Palestinian state was a non-starter in Washington. It wouldn’t be altogether surprising to see the Trump administration, especially if it’s reelected, take further radical measures like re-designating the PLO a terrorist organization, in order to up the ante considerably. They have already taken steps to weaponize anti-Semitism through the law, to crack down on legitimate debate on college campuses, and to criminalize free speech actions like boycotting Israel.
These initiatives are also in line with Israel’s second option, which can be viewed as part of a proactive strategy of getting out in front of any potential blowback by rallying allies to defend the system of governance it has created. To this end it has successfully recruited the U.S. to provide retroactive backing of all its settlement activities in the West Bank over the past 52 years, and preemptive endorsement of what it intends to achieve through formal annexation: the permanent control over the entire political geography of Israel-Palestine.
It is not clear if other administrations would have gone along in a fight to defend Israeli annexation, but the Trump administration is fully on board. In perhaps the most striking move yet, the U.S. Ambassador David Friedman is now leading a working group tasked with demarcating the territorial boundaries outlined in Trump’s proposal so that Israel can move forward with immediate annexation.
And the two countries are using their combined weight and power to try and bring others into the fold. This is particularly true of countries in the Arab world that are traditional allies of the Palestinians but fear damaging their relationship with the United States. But it is also true of Europe, where an extensive campaign of intimidation is being waged to prevent states from acting in accordance with international law and their own national policies regarding the two-state solution.
Add to this the bullying taking place in international fora, where the U.S. has pulled funding from UN agencies that have recognized a Palestinian state, and imposed visa bans on the staff of the International Criminal Court for considering cases against the U.S. and Israel.
On its own, the UN-compiled blacklist is rather generic. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, even said the report “does not provide a legal characterization of the activities in question, or of business enterprises’ involvement in them.” But taken together with previous UN resolutions, an International Court of Justice ruling from 2004 on Israel’s wall, and any possible future designation of Israeli criminality, and the list takes on greater significance. In other words, this is the reason Israel and the U.S. are lashing out. And it is likely only the beginning.