Understanding the U.S. Position on Settlements—and the Twin Political Crises of America and Israel

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.

Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Donald Trump, Israeli politics, Mike Pompeo, Settlements, U.S. Politics, US-Israel relations

Why Hizballah Is Threatening Cyprus

In a speech last Wednesday, Hizballah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah not only declared that “nowhere will be safe” in Israel in the event of an all-out war, but also that his forces would attack the island nation of Cyprus. Hanin Ghaddar, Farzin Nadimi, and David Schenker observe that this is no idle threat, but one the Iran-backed terrorist group has “a range of options” for carrying out. They explain: 

Nasrallah’s threat to Cyprus was not random—the republic has long maintained close ties with Israel, much to Hizballah’s irritation. In recent years, the island has hosted multiple joint air-defense drills and annual special-forces exercises with Israel focused on potential threats from Hizballah and Iran.

Nasrallah’s threat should also be viewed in the context of wartime statements by Iran and its proxies about disrupting vital shipping lanes to Israel through the East Mediterranean.

This scenario should be particularly troubling to Washington given the large allied military presence in Cyprus, which includes a few thousand British troops, more than a hundred U.S. Air Force personnel, and a detachment of U-2 surveillance aircraft from the 1st Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron.

Yoni Ben Menachem suggests there is an additional aspect to Nasrallah’s designs on Cyprus, involving a plan

to neutralize the Israeli air force through two primary actions: a surprise attack with precision missiles and UAVs on Israeli air-force bases and against radar and air-defense facilities, including paralyzing Ben-Gurion Airport.

Nasrallah’s goal is to ground Israeli aircraft to prevent them from conducting missions in Lebanon against mid- and long-range missile launchers. Nasrallah fears that Israel might preempt his planned attack by deploying its air force to Cypriot bases, a scenario the Israeli air force practiced with Cyprus during military exercises over the past year.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Cyprus, Hizballah, U.S. Security