The United States no longer believes that Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories are illegal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday, in the latest pro-Israel shift by Washington.
"After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate," Pompeo told reporters, the United States has concluded that "the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law."
"Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law hasn't worked. It hasn't advanced the cause of peace," he said.
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.
Pompeo’s announcement drew praise from Netanyahu, who said it “rights a historical wrong,” and condemnation from Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who said Washington was threatening “to replace international law with the ‘law of the jungle.’”
Palestinians argued the US stance flouted international law. The international community views the transfer of any country’s civilians to occupied land as illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and UN Security Council resolutions.
“The United States is neither qualified nor is authorized to negate international legitimacy resolutions and it has no right to give any legitimacy to Israeli settlement,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Jordan’s Foreign Minister, Ayman Safadi, said the policy change would have “dangerous consequences” for the prospects of reviving peace talks and called settlements “a blatant violation of international law.”
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 captured a decade earlier by Israel 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.
Pompeo said the move was not meant to prejudge the status of the West Bank, which the Palestinians hope will become part of an eventual Palestinian state as part of a wider resolution of the conflict.
“This is for the Israelis and the Palestinians to negotiate,” he said, saying the US decision was not meant “to compel a particular outcome nor create any legal obstacle to a negotiated resolution.”
Analysts criticized the move, saying it would make it even harder to resolve the more than 70-year-old conflict.
“He can declare that night is day, but it will not change the fact that Israeli settlements are not only illegal under international law, but are also a huge obstacle to peace and to the stability of our region,” said Hagit Ofran of the Israeli anti-settlements group Peace Now, according to Reuters.
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.
The announcement marked the third major instance in which the Trump administration has sided with Israel and against Palestinians and Arab positions.
In 2017 Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and, in 2018, the United States formally opened an embassy there. US policy had previously been that Jerusalem’s status was to be decided by the parties to the conflict.
And in March, Trump recognized Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria in a boost for Netanyahu that prompted a sharp response from Damascus.