As Israel appears headed for another election, the U.S. has reversed its long-standing position on the legality of Israeli settlements. The decision, according to USIP’s Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, “comes after a long stream of events that’s made the possibility of bringing the parties back to the table extremely hard to imagine.”

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the U.S. is softening its position on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. The secretary, noting in comments this week that the U.S.' 1978 State Department decision, or the 1978 State Department legal opinion that settlements are inconsistent with international law, is something that now the State Department disagrees with.

Mike Pompeo: We're not addressing or prejudging the ultimate status of the West Bank. This is for the Israelis and the Palestinians to negotiate. International law does not compel a particular outcome nor create any legal obstacle to a negotiated resolution.

Tim: So we have that to discuss, also the Israelis firing missiles into Syria and the news today, breaking evidently, that there is probably going to be another election in Israel. Let's turn to Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict program at the United States Institute of Peace, tweeting @USIP. Lucy, welcome. Thank you for being here today.

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Thank you very much Tim.

Tim: First, explain to people the significance of the change in policy referencing the settlements that the secretary of state was talking about the other day.

Lucy: Sure. Well, it's significant on a number of levels. On the one hand, let's start with what has not changed in some regard. As mentioned in your introduction, this was a State Department legal advisor memo that was penned in the 1970s under the Carter administration. Since then, subsequently, after that administration, President Reagan actually rejected that framing of the inconsistency with international law, but it maintained that settlements were an impediment or an obstacle to peace. Since then, we've had successive presidents talk about the impediment or the illegitimacy or the obstacles to achieving a negotiated settlement that settlements pose. So, what we saw yesterday was a more affirmative articulation by this administration of the fact that they do not consider it inconsistent with international law, and the implications of that really fall on about three or four levels.

One, it's one more, let's remember, action by this administration that has really reversed many longstanding stances the U.S. government has taken towards key issues on this conflict, and in that regard, as we saw from the reaction of the Palestinians yesterday, it's really put itself... It's taken its ability to be accepted by both sides as a credible mediator in this conflict, it's taken that off the table. It's also put itself out of lockstep with the international consensus on this conflict, consensus of which it has been a part until now. We saw condemnations from the European Union, from Russia, from the Arab states on this decision.

Also, while it may not have affected anything immediately on the ground right now, it has certainly been seen by politicians in Israel as giving a green light, particularly those politicians who are to the right and would like to see an annexationist policy, annexing parts of the West Bank. By those politicians, it's seen as a green light to pursue that. We're going to get to the elections in a moment, I realize, but certainly Netanyahu, if he manages to emerge victorious, which is a big question, but if he manages to emerge victorious, he said that first on his agenda will be to move ahead with annexing the Jordan Valley, which is part of the West Bank.

Tim: So, bottom line, is it too much to say that with the United States somewhat removed from the negotiations, that an actual peace to be reached, a peace agreement, is even further away now as a result of these changes that the United States has instituted?

Lucy: It certainly makes it much harder, but as mentioned, we must remember this comes after a line of different actions in this regard: the moving of the embassy, the closing of the Palestinian Representative Office, the defunding of the U.N.-run agency that has responsibility for Palestinian refugees, recognition of Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights— so this really comes off after a long string of events which has made the possibility of bringing the parties back to the table for negotiation agreement extremely hard to imagine at this point.

Tim: I want to get to the election in a moment, but I did want to ask also just on the movement of the embassy to Jerusalem, there was a sense that that was going to be followed by a lot of protesting and some pretty bad reaction. It does seem that there was some reaction, but it seems to have disappeared rather rapidly, which goes in the face of what conventional wisdom was about this kind of a decision to be made, because there's one of the cautionary tales from previous administrations, don't do that.

Lucy: Certainly, and I think what you did see, one of the consequences of the rhetoric around the potential for those moves that "let's not do this because it might result in raise of violence." The fact that you did not see the huge conflagration of violence that some predicted, I think has sent the message in some quarters that that is not something to be concerned about. The conventional wisdom, as it were, around that was proven wrong. I would say a couple of things on that point. One, as we saw last week when it came to Gaza, as we're seeing today with the activity between Israel and Israel's strikes into Syria, targeting Iranian military targets. This is a fragile and volatile region and we can never take for granted when violence may or may not erupt.

And in the context of border violence, even that may have nothing to do immediately with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict per se, in a fragile environment like that, you never know when border reactions can occur. But beyond that, I think that it's not really about the violence here. The question becomes in the long term how all these moves get us further towards a sustainable resolution to the conflict, and in the absence of finding a sustainable path forward to this conflict, I think we do have to think about the consequences including violence further down the road.

Tim: Again, Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen with us, director of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict program at the United States Institute of Peace. As we had mentioned at the beginning, a September election left both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Benny Gantz short of securing the parliamentary majority, but now it looks like they can't even come up with a coalition. Avigdor Lieberman saying, "Well, it doesn't look like it's going to happen, so a new election might be following." And in addition to that today, we have the attacks by the Israelis on Iranian positions, they say, inside Syria. Let's talk about the election first. What does this mean? Is there going to have to be another election?

Lucy: It certainly looks that way in my understanding, and frankly the way this has gone, for all we know there's been a breaking announcement while we're talking that leads us in a different direction, but I think as of about 45 minutes ago, one of the pieces that people were waiting for what to see how this might turn is what Avigdor Lieberman, who's basically seen in the role of kingmaker in this election, he came out and and said he would not join and sort of minority government, and since the only other alternative was a unity government, which talks over which between Gantz and Netanyahu up to the 11th hour last night seemed to have not succeeded in that regard. So putting all these together, it does look in fact like Israel might be heading to a third election, and we were already in unchartered waters here, completely unprecedented territory with Israel having two elections within a year, I will recall, but Netanyahu counted a narrow win back in April, but was unable to form a coalition, took the country into second elections, was not able to form a coalition.

The mandate was handed to his rival Benny Gantz, who has until midnight tonight, Israel time, to form a coalition. And that doesn't look like that possibility is going anywhere. So there's now about a three week period, I think, that kicks in if that hasn't happened, where any member of Knesset can try to get the support of a majority member of the parliament to form a government. If that falls apart, which I think it looks likely, it might, if it moves to that. Though of course one never knows. We are looking like we're heading to a third election.

Tim: One never knows as you say. And on this attack on Iranian positions or Iranian resources, I guess, if you will, assets, in Syria. Any thoughts on that?

Lucy: Well, I think this gets back to, as mentioned before, the fragility of the situation. The volatile neighborhood that it is. This really continues a pattern, what you saw today, it certainly ratcheted up, but you've seen over a number of months this pattern of Israel really drawing a red line on the ability of Iran to build up a military presence in Syria, and the closer it feels like it might be getting to the Israeli border, the more Israel has been insisting on pushing back on any attempt for Iran to establish that foothold. What you've seen in recent months is around is Iran hitting back where it can. There were Iran centered missiles that were intercepted and rockets that were intercepted yesterday, I believe, or in the last 24 hours. And what you've just seen was an Israeli retaliation for that.

What I would say is particularly in the context of the uncertain Israeli political environment, what you're seeing here is the kind of atmosphere that does drive Israeli security concerns. They're looking around, judging by this flare up as we did last week on the border with Gaza. You're seeing a flareup now on the eastern border with Syria. There's concerns about the northern border with another Iranian proxy, Hezbollah. So this is the tenuous security environment, and just to tie this back a little bit to the political environment, to the conversation about elections, what we've seen here is actually very little distinction in the security related positions that the two prime candidates for leadership right now, Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, very much see when it comes to these security issues is the consensus opinions.

Tim: So this is not just seen as something that Benjamin Netanyahu's undertaking for political benefit, this is something that would probably get the approval of both sides in this issue.

Lucy: This particular situation would very likely to get the approval and does get the approval of both sides in this issue, yes.

Tim: That was going to be my question, and I'm glad you got to it. Lucy, thank you for joining us so much. I appreciate it.

Lucy: Thank you very much.

Tim: Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of the Israeli Palestinian conflict program at the United States Institute of Peace and breaking news out of Israel this morning, and obviously it's an important ally of the U.S. in the region, the important ally of the U.S. in the region, and tweeting @USIP.

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