Peter Berkowitz joined the State Department in 2018 as an adviser on Israel policy; seven months later he was promoted to the storied position of director of policy planning. In an interview by Tal Schneider, he discusses his experience leaving academia for Foggy Bottom, the successes and failures of the Trump administration, and the future of Iran’s nuclear program. He also rejects the assertion that the State Department “moved to change the legal status of settlements and lower the chance for Palestinian statehood.”
It’s really important to emphasize that the White House peace plan [released in January of last year] involves a proposal for a two-state solution, indeed, a two-state solution in which the Palestinians would retain control over approximately 70 percent of the West Bank. There are also land swaps.
We have to be very careful about the policy that the State Department and therefore the Trump administration adopted concerning the settlements. It is often misstated, but Secretary Pompeo was very careful in his language. He did not say that settlement activity is consistent with international law. . . . He said, “settlements in the West Bank beyond the Green Line are not per se inconsistent with international law.” What is the difference between those two formulations? It’s huge. One says that everything that Israel builds is automatically consistent with international law. The other formulation, which was Secretary Pompeo’s, says that whatever Israel builds is not on its face illegal. It’s a matter of dispute and each case has to be examined on its own merits.
Berkowitz also comments on Israel’s current political instability:
[I]t’s very disturbing. It’s very urgent, I think, that both of us, the United States and Israel, get our houses better in order. I think, actually, [that] we face parallel problems. In the United States, a large part of the right hates the left, and a large part of the left hates the right. Each thinks that the other side is un-American and is destroying the country. Something similar could be said of Israel, though I understand that right and left in Israel have gotten jumbled up over the last couple of years. No liberal democracy can prosper when big segments of society on either side of the political aisle scorn the other side.