Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Monday that the U.S. is softening its position on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the latest in a series of Trump administration moves that weaken Palestinian claims to statehood.
Pompeo said the Trump administration will be reversing the previous government's "approach" on the settlements issue and returning to a version of the Reagan policy of the 1980s, which is likely to anger Palestinians and put the U.S. at odds with other nations working to end the conflict.
The move was based on a legal review to reassess the 1978 State Department legal opinion that held that civilian settlements in the occupied territories are “inconsistent with international law,” Pompeo said.
Speaking to the press at the State Department in Washington, the secretary of state emphasized that, while the administration is revoking the notion that settlements are illegal under international law, it is not taking a position on Israel's sovereignty over the West Bank. Pompeo repeated several times that the final decision on that topic, as well as the status of East Jerusalem, should be left to direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
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The Trump administration views the 1978 opinion, the basis for long-standing U.S. opposition to expanding the settlements, as a distraction and believes any legal questions about the issue should be addressed by Israeli courts, Pompeo said.
The U.S. would not be taking a view on the legal status of any specific settlement, the American top diplomat said, leaving that task to the Israeli judicial system. The Israeli court system accepts challenges to the legality of some settlements over others and is therefore best placed to decide, Pompeo said, "the U.S. will respect decisions on the subject made by Israeli courts."
Pompeo also said that the previous American position of viewing settlements as illegal "did not advance peace."
“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law has not advanced the cause of peace,” Pompeo said. “The hard truth is that there will never be a judicial resolution to the conflict, and arguments about who is right and who is wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace.”
Responding to questions following his remarks, he insisted this was the result of a legal analysis and review process, and rejected the notion that it was linked to domestic politics in either Israel or the U.S.
Palestinian statehood, Israeli politics
The U.S. Embassy in Israel issued a statement right after the announcement, advising embassy employees not to travel to Jerusalem's Old City, the West Bank and Gaza.
The embassy also called on Americans in Israel to take heightened security measures when traveling in Jerusalem.
"Individuals and groups opposed to the Secretary of State's recent announcement may target U.S. government facilities, U.S. private interests, and U.S. citizens," the statement said.
This echoes similar announcements made in the recent past, after a series of moves by the White House with the direct effect to weaken Palestinian efforts to achieve statehood. This includes President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the movement of the U.S. Embassy to that city and the closure of the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington.
The 1978 legal opinion on settlements is known as the Hansell Memorandum. It had been the basis for more than 40 years of carefully worded U.S. opposition to settlement construction that had varied in its tone and strength depending on the president’s position.
In the final days of the Obama administration, the U.S. allowed the UN Security Council to pass a resolution declaring the settlements a “flagrant violation” of international law.
The Palestinians and most of the world say the settlements undermine hopes for a two-state solution by gobbling up land sought by the Palestinians. It is unclear what further consequences this will have on the administration’s oft-promised peace plan, which is unlikely to gather much-needed international support by endorsing a position contrary to the global consensus.
Key people at the very heart of the Trump administration are known as staunch supporters of the settlement enterprise, including U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and big Trump donor Sheldon Adelson. Friedman was a major fundraiser for the settlements before taking his current role.
The anti-settlement monitoring group Peace Now, along with AP reporting, has found a sharp increase in settlement planning and construction since Trump took office.
The shift is a victory for Netanyahu, a longtime advocate of the settlements, an Israeli political official told Haaretz that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a direct hand in bringing about the Pompeo announcement and “had been dealing with the issue for several months.”
It may be taken by Netanyahu and the settlement movement as a green light for additional construction, or even annexation, of lands claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.
The Netanyahu government was dealt a blow just last week when the European Court of Justice ruled products made in Israeli settlements must be labeled as such. Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival after he was unable to form a coalition government following two elections this year.
The embattled prime minister is now anxiously waiting to see if his chief rival, Benny Gantz, can put together a coalition. If Gantz fails, the country could be forced into a third election with Netanyahu facing the distraction of a trial.