Bret Stephens: Israeli settlement policy is one thing Trump gets right

In this week’s Mideast news, the Iranian regime has reportedly killed more than 100 of its own people as it attempts to suppress another wave of nationwide demonstrations. The Islamic State is taking advantage of Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria to regroup. Governments in Lebanon and Iraq remain paralyzed by popular discontent. And Israel has struck dozens of targets near Damascus after intercepting Iranian rockets fired from Syria.

Into this thicket of trouble, Mike Pompeo announced on Monday that the State Department would reverse a 41-year-old legal opinion claiming that Israeli settlements in the West Bank were inconsistent with international law. The decision has garnered outsized attention, as if it’s another gratuitous Trumpian obstacle on the road to peace.

It’s not. To paraphrase Ariana Grande, we have one less problem without it.

I rarely have anything positive to say about Donald Trump’s foreign policy, and his overall approach to the Middle East is damaging and potentially disastrous for the United States and Israel alike. America cannot turn its back on the region, as Trump would like to do, and imagine the Middle East will return the favor. And Israel will not be safe in an America First world in which allies like the Kurds are cavalierly betrayed and enemies like Iran are only haphazardly confronted.

But let me give the administration some credit: When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least it isn’t stuck in a time warp, hanging on to hoary shibboleths.

Among those shibboleths: That the conflict can be solved by returning to the status quo ante 1967, or at least an approximation of it. That peace between Israel and the Arab states hinges on delivering a Palestinian state. And that settlement construction is the principal obstacle to peace.

This is all nonsense. The pan-Arab campaign to “liberate” Palestine began two decades before Israel controlled an inch of Gaza or the West Bank. Resolving the territorial dispute arising from the 1967 war does nothing to solve the existential issues arising from Israel’s creation in 1948. Relations with much of the Arab world have flourished in recent years, not on account of any progress on the Palestinian front, but because Arab states see Israel as a capable ally against an imperialist Iran.

As for settlements, Israel withdrew all of its settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The result was more war, not less. What began as a moment of hope rapidly descended into a Palestinian civil war. That was followed by a Hamas victory, three major wars, and innumerable bloody skirmishes. Now we have an endless limbo in which Israelis live under constant threat, Gazans chafe under a remorseless tyranny, and groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad somehow have the means to acquire and fire hundreds of rockets at Israeli civilian targets.

Whatever else one might say about the administration, at least it understands that it would be worse than useless to demand that Israelis repeat the experiment on a much larger scale. Reversing a legally shaky opinion that does little more than drive American policy down a familiar cul-de-sac advances nobody’s interests, including those of the Palestinians.

I say “legally shaky” because it was never clear just whose territory Israel supposedly occupied when it wrested the West Bank from Jordanian control in a defensive war: Jordan’s claims to the area weren’t internationally recognized, either.

The more important point is that no progress can be made by repeatedly exhuming an increasingly distant past. As a matter of principle, Israel needs a two-state solution because it should not indefinitely rule (even indirectly) people who do not wish to be ruled by Israel. As a matter of survival, Israel also requires that a Palestinian state have neither the ambition nor the means to devote itself to Israel’s ultimate destruction.

The core problem with the past half-century of failed peacemaking efforts has been the facile assumption that meeting the need for two states would ultimately fulfill the requirement for security. The lesson of experience has been the opposite. The failure of Palestinians and their international enablers to satisfy that requirement — or even feign concern for it — has only made the need seem like little more than a remote abstraction to most Israelis.

This presents its own dangers. Having a right to build settlements is one thing. Having the right and exercising it wisely are separate things. A wise Israel needs to understand that it will have to compromise with the Palestinians at some point, in conditions that make compromise possible.

Opposition leader Benny Gantz, who on Wednesday failed to assemble a ruling coalition, gets this. Benjamin Netanyahu, who lately has promised to annex parts of the West Bank, does not. We’re a long way from knowing which of them will become prime minister.

In the meantime, the administration’s ruling on settlements cleans out some of the cobwebs under which thinking about the conflict has moldered. Good. Peace, if it comes, will not be the result of a diplomatic solution, much less as part of a legal argument over the Geneva Convention. It will happen as a cultural evolution, in which a new generation of Palestinian leaders dedicate themselves to building up the institutions of a decent state rather than attacking those of their neighbor; and in which Israelis have the wisdom to wait for those leaders, if necessary for decades.

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.