U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo on Thursday became the first top American diplomat to visit an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank as the State Department announced a major policy shift that will allow products from the settlements to be labeled “Made in Israel.”
The two moves reflected the Trump administration’s acceptance of Israeli settlements, which the Palestinians and most of the international community view as a violation of international law and a major obstacle to peace.
Pompeo also announced that the U.S. would brand the Palestinian-led international boycott movement against Israel as “anti-Semitic” and would bar any groups that participate in it from receiving government funding. It was not immediately clear which groups would be affected by the move.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed Pompeo’s visit to the Psagot winery to reporters traveling with him but who were not allowed to accompany him on that leg of the visit. The winery is located in a settlement near Jerusalem.
Pompeo had earlier said he would visit the Golan Heights. Israel seized the West Bank and the Golan Heights in the 1967 Mideast War and later annexed the Golan in a move that is not recognized internationally.
Referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Pompeo said : “We will regard the global, anti-Israel BDS campaign as anti-Semitic.”
He added that “we will immediately take steps to identify organizations that engage in hateful BDS conduct and withdraw U.S. government support for such groups,” and called on other nations to “recognize the BDS movement for the cancer that it is.”
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, serving in what has long been a nonpartisan office, speaks to the RNC in the middle of an official visit to Israel.
BDS organizers cast their movement as a nonviolent way of protesting Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, following the model of the campaign that helped end apartheid in South Africa. The movement has had some limited success over the years, particularly on college campuses and with artists and entertainers, but no impact on the Israeli economy.
Israel views BDS as an assault on its existence and has seized on statements by some supporters to accuse it of anti-Semitism, allegations denied by organizers.
In a statement, the BDS movement reiterated its rejection of “all forms of racism, including anti-Jewish racism,” and accused the U.S. and Israel of trying to silence advocacy for Palestinian rights.
“The BDS movement for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality stands with all those struggling for a more dignified, just and beautiful world,” it said. “With our many partners, we shall resist these McCarthyite attempts to intimidate and bully Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights defenders into accepting Israeli apartheid and settler-colonialism as fate.”
Pompeo did not provide additional details about the initiative, and it was unclear what organizations would be at risk of losing funding. Israelis have accused international groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of supporting BDS, which the organizations deny.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have to pay a price for embracing Trump and meddling in American politics on the Republican side.
Human Rights Watch, whose researcher was deported from Israel last year for past statements allegedly in support of BDS, does not call for boycotting Israel but urges companies to avoid doing business in West Bank settlements, saying it makes them complicit in human rights abuses. Amnesty does not take a position on the boycott movement.
“The Trump administration is undermining the common fight against the scourge of anti-Semitism by equating it with peaceful advocacy of boycotts,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Israel passed a 2017 law that bars entry to foreigners who have called for economic boycotts of Israel or its settlements. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution opposing the boycott movement last year, and several U.S. states have enacted anti-BDS laws.
The European Union’s former foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said she opposed BDS but backed the movement’s right to call for boycotts as freedom of speech.
Virtually all Palestinian advocacy groups support the boycott movement. Under President Trump, the U.S. has already cut off nearly all forms of aid to the Palestinians. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to restore the aid as part of efforts to revive the Mideast peace process.
Besides UAE, no other Arab nation has said it is willing to take the long-shunned leap to accept and recognize Israel as a legitimate Mideast neighbor.
Pompeo spoke at a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said the Israel-U.S. alliance had reached “unprecedented heights” under the Trump administration.
Netanyahu thanked the administration for moving its embassy to contested Jerusalem, abandoning the U.S. position that Israeli settlements are contrary to international law, recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and taking a hard line against Iran.
Israel captured east Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 war. The Palestinians want both territories to be part of their future state and view the settlements as a violation of international law and an obstacle to peace — a position endorsed by most of the international community.
Trump’s Mideast plan, which overwhelmingly favored Israel and was rejected by the Palestinians, would allow Israel to annex up to a third of the West Bank, including all of its settlements there, which are home to nearly 500,000 Israelis.
“For a long time, the State Department took the wrong view of settlements,” Pompeo said, but it now recognizes that “settlements can be done in a way that [is] lawful, appropriate and proper.”
Neither Netanyahu nor Pompeo said anything about the U.S. election. Pompeo, like Trump, has yet to acknowledge Biden’s victory. Netanyahu congratulated Biden and referred to him as the president-elect in an official statement earlier this week.