America’s top diplomat Mike Pompeo made history Thursday by becoming the first secretary of state and highest-ranking U.S. official to visit an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.
The visit is widely seen as Pompeo's last play to the Republicans’ evangelical base as the most pro-settler administration in U.S. history nears its end, and he looks ahead to a possible presidential run in 2024. In Israel, it will be seen as a parting gift to Israel’s ideological right wing and the settler community in the West Bank, a contested region that was captured from Jordan in 1967.
Pompeo landed in Israel on Wednesday, and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Alzayani in Jerusalem. He also made a stop at Qasr al-Yahud, the traditional site of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan Valley, according to a State Department official.
Pompeo also plans to visit the Golan Heights, land Israel seized from Syria in the same 1967 conflict and still seen as occupied territory by most of the international community.
The visit to the settlement is the latest in a series of moves by the Trump administration over the last four years to reverse 40 years of U.S. policy. Pompeo's trip, the latest blow to Palestinian hopes, comes after the Palestinian Authority announced Tuesday it will resume cooperation with Israel in what was seen as a sign of optimism after President-elect Joe Biden's win.
Beginning as early as 2017, U.S. officials began dropping public references to the West Bank and Golan Heights as “occupied territories.” Months after recognizing the Golan Heights as part of Israel in March 2019, the State Department formally rejected its own 1978 State Department legal opinion finding Israeli settlements in the West Bank “inconsistent with international law."
Speaking at a news conference with Netanyahu on Thursday, Pompeo said the State Department recognizes that "settlements can be done in a way that are lawful and appropriate and proper."
Pompeo's choice of destination in the contested territory was the Psagot Winery, involved last year in a high-profile case in which the European Union’s top court ruled countries must identify products made in Israeli settlements.
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Most of the international community considers settlements to be illegal based on the Geneva Convention principle that an occupying power is barred from transferring its population into war-won territories. They also see them as an obstacle to a two-state solution — a peace deal that hinges on the establishment of a separate Palestinian state.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has called the visit to the winery a "dangerous precedent" that "legalizes settlements."
Around the same time he visited the winery, Pompeo issued a statement saying the U.S. would require all producers within Area C of the West Bank to mark goods as “Made in Israel,” or similar, when exporting to America.
Area C is the roughly 60 percent of the West Bank where Israel exercises near full control and where most Jewish settlements are located.
Pompeo said the new guidelines would ensure the country of origin markings for Israeli and Palestinian goods were consistent with Washington’s “reality-based foreign policy approach.”
It came after Pompeo also announced Thursday that the State Department will now regard the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), which calls for boycotts of goods made in the Israeli settlements, as anti-Semitic and punish those who support it.
In response, the BDS movement said the Trump-Netanyahu alliance was intentionally conflating opposition to "Israel's regime of oppression" with "anti-Jewish racism" to suppress the struggle for Palestinians rights.
"BDS has consistently and categorically rejected all forms of racism, including anti-Jewish racism," it said.
Initially included in the Trump administration’s Mideast peace plan, U.S. support for further annexation has been put on hold in favor of normalized ties between Israel and the Gulf States of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Earlier this year, Pompeo became the first secretary of state to make an official visit to the Western Wall, and addressed the Republican National Convention from Jerusalem.
The speech remains under investigation by the anti-corruption Office of the Special Counsel as a potential violation of the Hatch Act, which restricts U.S. officials from mixing electioneering with official government business.
Pompeo maintains he was acting in his “personal capacity,” when delivering the speech and he received approval from the State Department legal office, despite having flown to Israel for an official visit as secretary of state.
This is Pompeo’s fourth stop on a seven-country tour where every leader has recognized Biden's winin spite of Trump’s own refusal to concede.
Netanyahu’s own congratulations came several hours after other global leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“Joe, we’ve had a long and warm personal relationship for nearly 40 years,” Netanyahu tweeted. “I know you as a great friend of Israel.”
Netanyahu immediately followed with a thank you to Trump for “the friendship you have shown the state of Israel and me personally.”
Netanyahu spoke with Biden on Tuesday, the day before Pompeo touched down in Israel. The pair agreed to meet soon and reiterated the need to continue to strengthen the strong alliance between the U.S. and Israel, according to a statement from Netanyahu’s office.
The president-elect has expressed opposition to unilateral annexation and the hope to revitalize prospects for a two-state solution but it is unclear what actions will be placed behind any condemnation of Israeli expansion.
Under most of the Obama administration, Israeli settlements were referred to as “illegitimate” and “obstacles to peace,” but shortly before the administration left office, the U.S., in a largely symbolic measure, allowed a U.N. Security Council resolution to pass declaring the settlements illegal under international law.
It was the first resolution criticizing Israeli settlements to be passed by the U.N. in almost 40 years.