Does it deliver a hefty domestic political payoff, reverse an Obama administration position, upturn international law and irritate the European Union? If so, it’s probably a Trump administration foreign policy decision.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that the US now rejects a 1978 State Department legal opinion that deemed Israeli settlements in the West Bank “inconsistent with international law.” Like moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2017, this dramatic new stance on settlements — considered illegal by the United Nations and EU — further deprives the Palestinians of leverage and validates Benjamin Netanyahu’s close relationship with Trump at an existential moment for the Israeli PM.
Perhaps more important for the US President, Monday’s decision is a gift to conservative evangelical voters who support Israel for reasons of biblical prophecy, as well as to his US donors who are also supportive of right-wing politicians in Israel. The administration says the change could bring a just Middle East peace closer, and that it took a year of legal analysis to arrive at this decision.
Every president’s political leanings naturally influence American foreign policy. But no recent administration has been so keen as Trump’s to fracture enduring US policy positions — even at the risk of infringing US values.
From Iran to North Korea to trans-Atlantic relations, this White House has a record of retrofitting policy to match Trump’s political bottom line. This summer, Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping that he would keep mum on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong while trade talks took place. And the current impeachment inquiry centers on whether he politicized security aid to Ukraine by pressuring the country’s President to investigate Trump’s potential political rival Joe Biden.
As US diplomatic aide David Holmes testified, quoting the US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, what Trump cares about is the “big stuff” that benefits him.