The United States no longer considers Israeli settlements to be “inconsistent with international law,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Monday, in a shift in American foreign policy.
The statement puts the United States at odds with virtually all countries and UN Security Council resolutions and comes just as centrist Benny Gantz races to form a government to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close ally of President Donald Trump.
“After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate, this administration agrees... (the) establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law,” Pompeo said.
“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law hasn’t worked. It hasn’'t advanced the cause of peace,” Pompeo said.
Until now, US policy was based, at least in theory, on a legal opinion issued by the State Department in 1978, which said that establishing of settlements in the Palestinian territories went against international law.
The Fourth Geneva Convention on the laws of war explicitly forbids moving civilians into occupied territories.
While the United States has generally vetoed Security Council measures critical of Israel, previous president Barack Obama, exasperated with Netanyahu, in his final weeks in office allowed the passage of Resolution 2334 that called Israel’s settlements a “flagrant violation” of international law.
Pompeo said that the United States was rejecting the Obama administration’s approach, although he denied that the move was giving a green light to Israel to build more settlements.
The US shift could be interpreted as a boost for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is struggling to stay in power after failing to form a coalition government.
Pompeo denied such a motivation, saying: “The timing of this was not tied to anything that had to do with domestic politics anywhere in Israel or otherwise.”
Netanyahu welcomes US rethink
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said a US policy shift deeming Israeli settlement not to be illegal “rights a historical wrong.”
“This policy reflects an historical truth - that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria. In fact, we are called Jews because we are the people of Judea,” he said in a statement, using the biblical term for the West Bank.
His comments came after US Secretary of States Mike Pompeo said the United States no longer considers Israeli settlements to be “inconsistent with international law,” in a shift in American foreign policy.
However, analysts also criticized the move, saying it would make it even harder to resolve the more than 70-year-old conflict.
The announcement marked the third major instance in which the Trump administration has sided with Israel and against stances taken by the Palestinians and Arab states even before unveiling its long-delayed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
In 2017 Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and, in 2018, the United States formally opened an embassy in the city. US policy had previously been that the status of Jerusalem was to be decided by the parties to the conflict.
And in March, Trump recognized Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights in a boost for Netanyahu that prompted a sharp response from Syria, which once held the strategic land.
Trump’s move might have been designed to help Netanyahu as he struggles to stay in power. Israeli politics is deadlocked after two inconclusive elections this year. Former military chief Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party emerged neck and neck with Netanyahu following a September vote, and both leaders have struggled to put together a ruling coalition.
Martin Indyk, a former US peace negotiator, described the decision on Twitter as “a totally gratuitous move.” “Why slap the Palestinians in the face again? Why boost the settlement/annexation movement at the very moment that Gantz is trying to form a government?” he asked.