Opinion: Power overrules the law — especially in Middle East politics | Opinion | DW | 19.11.2019
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Opinion: Power overrules the law — especially in Middle East politics

The US is dismantling the foundations of a Middle East policy based on international law. Its decision to condone Israeli settlements is just the latest step, writes Barbara Wesel.

The latest about-face in America's Middle East policy was to be expected. Last year, the Trump administration unilaterally re-defined the status of Jerusalem by moving its embassy there. This spring, it recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

And now, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has declared the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is no longer "per se, inconsistent with international law.” 

Pompeo's legal argument is based on a cynical twisting of facts. Though it is true international law did not stop Israel from establishing settlements in the West Bank, at least the law provided displaced Palestinians with a legal voice. Now the Trump administration wants to take that away from them.

The US ends the peace process

Pompeo expanded, claiming the peace process hadn't been advanced by calls to declare Israeli settlements illegal. That is true, but retroactively declaring that the consequences of Israel's military might are legal won't further it either.

Barbara Wesel DW

Barbara Wesel is DW's senior correspondent in Brussels

With this series of one-sided decisions solely benefiting Israel, Washington has ended anything that could be called a peace process.

In 2016, the UN Security Council called for a freeze on all settlement construction in the occupied territories — but the US considers the UN a superfluous institution anyway. What does Washington care about a silly international debate club when it is clear that power only comes from the barrel of a gun? We are seeing a return to international politics of the early modern age — when marauding mercenaries determined political reality.

Europeans have decisively rejected the change in US policy. The EU's top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, said all Israeli settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territory is "illegal under international law" and undermines the "viability of the two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace." But such statements aren't worth the paper they are printed on if the EU doesn't have the power to enforce the law.

The EU has to sit by and wring its hands

Now that Trump's government has done everything possible to provide a lifeline to the Netanyahu government in its struggle for survival and is trying to sell the world its own "big Middle East deal," the EU is on the outside looking in; the EU will no longer play the role of mediator in any new peace negotiations. 

This most recent development is a set back for the Europeans in two regards. Firstly, it shows the EU is more of a house cat than a tiger, struggling to resolve domestic disputes within its own ranks. Its political influence in no way measures up to its economic importance.

Secondly, the move calls into question the EU's entire system of values and laws. If international law is no longer a basis for resolving conflict, does that mean the EU has to arm itself to the teeth to get what is in its interest?

On the grand stage, where smaller players like the Kurds or the Palestinians have to fight for their future, the EU is forced to sit by and helplessly wring its hands. That is because it lacks military power and because over the past decade, it has wasted the opportunity to create an effective diplomatic policy that would make it indispensable in resolving major international conflicts.

The EU lacks unity and an appreciation for shared interests, not even the words of French President Emmanuel Macron can change that. He recently made an urgent call for Europe to take up its role on the international political stage.

From its current position of foreign policy weakness, all the EU can do is look on in helpless fury as Washington quickly proclaims injustice in the Middle East a new legal right. 

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