Pompeo Scorns the Law Because He’s Never Had to Follow It

Photograph Source: Gage Skidmore – CC BY 3.0

Michael Pompeo – let’s use his real name – was very revealing when he ripped up the latest bit of international law which didn’t favour Donald Trump or Benjamin Netanyahu in the Middle East. Jewish colonies in the West Bank were not against international law. “Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law hasn’t worked,” he boasted. This was not only egregious. It was a lie.

What Pompeo meant was that this vital adherence to world law – whereby, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, occupying powers cannot plant their own citizens on occupied and stolen land – no longer suited the United States and Israel. Of course it hadn’t “worked”, because the Palestinians rigidly trusted the laws which the world accepted after the Second World War.

Occupation is a very serious matter. But, according to Pompeo, “after studying all sides [sic] of the legal debate [sic], the United States has concluded that the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se [sic yet again], inconsistent with international law”. To say otherwise “hasn’t advanced the cause of peace”.

Did US secretaries of state always lie so brazenly, so frighteningly, so mendaciously, so utterly without conscience?

True, Colin Powell told US embassies that they should delete “occupied territories” from their Middle East vocabulary. Henceforth, this pathetic ex-general announced, they were to be called “disputed territories”. It was a fabrication – he was trying to erase the very fact of the longest military occupation in modern history – and this helped to push open the door for the Pompeos and the Trumps to strip Palestinians of any hope of self-determination, dignity and human rights.

But Pompeo’s vicious argument went a step further. It was clearly not in America’s or Israel’s interest even to respond to the illegal status of the Jewish colonial project in the West Bank. The US did not, as it claimed, “study all sides” of international law – it certainly did not study the juridical side (and certainly not the Palestinian side) – nor is the law a “debate” between two sides.

Laws are not written to be abandoned by those who find them inconvenient, and by those for whom they do not “work”. And international law cannot be applied “per se”, or cease to be applied, to international conflicts when the US or Israel finds it inconvenient.

But thus Pompeo spoke. Just as Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem and then declared that Washington accepted Jerusalem – and, by implication, all of Jerusalem – as the capital of Israel. Israel’s sovereignty over the West Bank (or so claimed Pompeo) would be decided later. Be sure, though, that the US will go along with any Israeli annexation.

After all, did not Pompeo also inform us that the expansion of Jewish “settlements” would be decided by Israeli courts? As if Israeli courts have any further legitimacy when they decide the fate of the Palestinians, the tearing down of their homes, the theft of yet further property in the West Bank and the endless detention of hundreds of young men without trial.

Then came a Pompeo excuse from which even the chap with the moustache whose name I will not mention might have seized upon with delight. “The hard truth is that there will never be a judicial solution to the conflict, and arguments about who is right and who is wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace.” As we know from history – Pompeo and Trump excepted – deciding who is right and who is wrong is the only way of bringing peace, for Israel just as much as the Palestinian people.

But when you throw law out of the window, you create states without law. Hence there wasn’t a whimper out of Pompeo when the Israelis last week claimed another propaganda victory, announcing the death of a prominent Islamic Jihad official in Gaza who was allegedly (do we know?) preparing rocket attacks on Israel. Problem: the guy was not there, but those who were blown to pieces in the tin shacks included eight members of the A-Sawarkah family, including five children aged two, three and 12. Another 12 members of the family were wounded.

Israel’s own redoubtable and brave Ha’aretz correspondent Gideon Levy wrote sarcastically that “they, who serve in the most moral army and the most advanced intelligence services in the world, didn’t know that the flimsy tin shack had long since stopped being part of the ‘Islamic Jihad infrastructure’, and it’s doubtful that it ever was. They didn’t know and they didn’t bother to check – after all, what’s the worst that could happen?”

The Israelis promised the usual inquiry into their “mistake”, but many of the international media who recorded the mythical killing of an Islamic Jihad leader could not find space for the later, truthful account of the slaughter of the innocent. And that, surely, is because, when it comes to the death of Palestinian civilians, international law is forgotten as surely as Pompeo now urges us to forget the international law that forbids building on occupied and stolen land.

This signal moral failure, this deliberate and cynical denial of the law, has now spread across the Middle East region. The CIA has said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the dismemberment of American resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi – it was, after all, his cronies who chopped Khashoggi up – yet Pompeo warmly hugs the crown prince, encouraging his hatred of Iran and all things Shia, and no longer speaks of the journalist. You can forgive even a murderous regime that includes Khashoggi’s killers if you put the law to one side; and murder – it seems difficult to remember now in the Middle East – is supposed to be a crime.

Was this not, ultimately, why the chief executive of Uber cars, Dara Khosrowshahi, was able, on HBO, to call the murder of Khashoggi a “mistake” and compared this dastardly act to the accidental death of a woman driving a self-driving car? “People make mistakes,” he said – which would certainly match Mohammed bin Salman’s claim that he was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder because he was crown prince, but not responsible because he said he did not know about it.

Apparently irrelevant to the Uber CEO’s vile words was the fact that Saudi Arabia is Uber’s fifth largest shareholder, and Yasir al-Rumayyan, governor of the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund and the recently named chair of Aramco, happens to sit on the Uber board.

At the end of the day, Khosrowshahi remembered that murder was murder and against the law and – even before his horrible interview was aired – started to bandage the wounds he had inflicted on himself and Khashoggi’s memory. Khashoggi’s murder, he now mused, was “reprehensible” and “should not be excused”. I “said something in the moment”, the Uber CEO added, “that I do not believe”.

But don’t they all? Pompeo; the Israelis who bombed the A-Sawarkah family; the Uber boss. They all forget the law, the power of law, the essentials of law, because they can live without it, can ignore it, can – in the case of the Israeli government – get away with theft or murder, or, like the Uber man, can just claim that someone else’s murder is a mistake.

Mistake: that’s the word which both the Israelis and the Uber boss used this month. And when Pompeo encourages Israel’s colonial free-for-all (free from legal accountability, that is) the result will be more despair and further deaths.

In the endless cowboy films I used to watch as a boy, sheriffs gunned down the “bad guys”, the innocent townsfolk were protected by the law and “peace” was restored to the Wild West. Today, it’s the other way round. For the moment, of course, we’ll have to forget the native Americans who really paid the price, those who refused to hand over their lands to the white men and fought back when their homes were stolen.

The US cavalry, like Michael Pompeo, didn’t care much for the law when they were busy dispossessing a native people.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.