Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Psagot on Thursday marked the first time a top American diplomat has visited a settlement in the West Bank, considered illegal under international law. For any other Secretary of State, this move would have been unprecedented, breaking with decades of US foreign policy and ignoring UN Security Council resolutions. But not from Pompeo, who has been moving American policy in this direction since virtually the beginning of his time as the Trump administration’s top diplomat.
Under Pompeo, the State Department ruled that settlements are not de facto illegal under international law, leaving it up to Israel’s court system to determine the legality of construction on land the rest of the world considers occupied territory. Speaking about that decision earlier in the day beside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Pompeo called it a “simple recognition of this as part of Israel” and “a recognition of the reality.”
“For a long time, the State Department took… a view that didn’t recognize the history of this special place,” Pompeo went on. “Today the United States Department of State stands strongly to the recognition that settlements can be done in a way that are lawful and appropriate and proper.”
Pompeo sat for a private lunch in the settlement of Psagot, which lies about 20 kilometers – or 12 miles – north of Jerusalem, and just a few kilometers east of Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian Authority.
The meal was accompanied with a red blend of merlot, petit verdot and cabernet sauvignon wine that the Psagot winery named after Pompeo. The secretary’s trip was a powerful symbolic gift to Jewish settlers in the West Bank, Israel’s right-wing, and perhaps most importantly for Pompeo, evangelical Christians. If Pompeo is eyeing a run for the White House in 2024, this visit is a compelling way to attract the support of evangelicals.
Indeed, Pompeo’s visit to the winery was encouraged by an evangelical leader from Iowa. “For him to visit this area now underscores this administration’s commitment to Israel,” Bob Vander Plaats, CEO of The Family Leader, said. “Pompeo is establishing an exceptionally high bar, before Biden and Harris come in, for what our relationship should be for the US relationship to Israel.”
State Department officials were anxious ahead of the visit, saying this was Pompeo’s call. “This is something he wanted to do. It was not a visit that State Department career officials suggested,” one State Department official added, describing the unprecedented nature of the visit.
Even in the waning days of the Trump administration, Pompeo, who has yet to publicly acknowledge Joe Biden as President-elect, showed no indication of slowing down or changing direction. He announced Thursday morning that the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel, more commonly known as BDS, will be regarded as anti-Semitic by the State Department. He described the BDS movement, which tries to pressure Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories, as a “cancer.”
After his visit to the Psagot winery, Pompeo upended decades of US foreign policy once again, announcing that products made in Israeli settlements could be labeled “Made in Israel,” instead of “Made in the West Bank.” The owners of the winery spearheaded this fight in Europe, suing the European Union in recent years for barring the winery from attaching a “Made in Israel” label to its products. Psagot lost the lawsuit, but with Pompeo’s announcement, they seem to have won the war with a champion in the Trump administration.
The guidelines Pompeo released stipulate that Israeli products made in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel has full security and civilian control, can be labeled “Made in Israel.” Area C constitutes some 60% of the West Bank, which the international community considers territory for a future Palestinian state. Pompeo’s guidelines even went far beyond the Trump administration’s plan for Middle East peace, which set aside most of Area C for the Palestinians, if and when their leadership decided to reengage with the White House.
Pompeo boasted on Twitter that the new guidelines “protect Israeli producers and put the United States, and the world, on track towards recognizing reality.”
But just like recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, it is US foreign policy that stands alone, ignoring international consensus and often UN Security Council resolutions.
Palestinians have voiced their anger at Pompeo’s visit ahead of his arrival in the West Bank. A day earlier, Palestinian land owners protested near Psagot. Waving Palestinian flags, many held signs that read “Pompeo Go Home” and “Pompeo is a partner to war criminals.” Psagot was built on land confiscated from the nearby Palestinian village Al-Bireh, they argue.
Palestinian leaders slammed Pompeo’s decision to visit the settlements but were powerless to stop it. PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi said on Twitter that Pompeo was “trespassing on Palestinian land stolen by Israel for its illegal settler-colonial enterprise. You’ve done a lot of damage already. Just go away!”
Before visiting Psagot, Pompeo stopped at Qasr el-Yahud, a biblical site considered the traditional location of the baptism of Jesus Christ. The site is a common destination for Christian pilgrims, who submerge themselves in the Jordan River. Qasr el-Yahud, which means Castle of the Jew in Arabic, is also the biblical site at which the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the Holy Land.
After leaving the site, Pompeo tweeted that he had an “incredible visit” and that he “was pleased to see the expansion of tourism and access for visitors of all faiths.”
Pompeo then took a helicopter to the Golan Heights, again celebrating America’s modified foreign policy under the Trump administration, which recognized Israeli sovereignty in the territory taken from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War.
In the Golan Heights, Pompeo visited Mount Bental, a strategic hill that overlooks southern Syria. “You can’t stand here and stare out at what’s across the border and deny the central thing that President Trump recognized what the previous presidents have refused to do. This is a part of Israel and a central part of Israel,” Pompeo said alongside his Israeli counterpart.
Notably, Pompeo did not visit Trump Heights, a planned settlement named after President Donald Trump whose welcome sign has become a bit of a tourist attraction in the Golan Heights.