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Pompeo recasts U.S. policy towards Israel with visit to settlement winery

“It's difficult for me to express what we feel for the secretary of state and for what he did for the Jewish people,” said the owner of Psagot Winery.
Image: The Psagot winery
The Psagot winery, located in an industrial park built by settlers, in the occupied West Bank north of Jerusalem.Menahem Kahana / AFP via Getty Images

PSAGOT, West Bank — It would have been out of the question under any other U.S. administration.

But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is no stranger to breaking with decades of U.S. foreign policy tradition towards land claimed by the Palestinians and on Thursday he became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank when he traveled to the Psagot Winery in the hills outside Jerusalem.

His trip to Israel has been filled with policy-altering announcements on the U.S. approach to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and the labeling of products made in some parts of West Bank — land claimed by Palestinians — as "Made in Israel."

“It's difficult for me to express what we feel for the secretary of state and for what he did for the Jewish people,” Yaakov Berg, the winery's owner, told NBC News.

He added that Pompeo was the first American secretary of state to clearly explain that the land “is Israel.”

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. Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan in its 1967 war with its Arab neighbors.

Last year, in a case involving the winery, Europe’s top court ruled that countries must identify products made in Israeli settlements.

Israel fiercely rejected the European Court of Justice’s ruling, saying it was political, discriminated against the country and diminished the chances of peace.

But it was a blow for Berg’s business, which produces 600,000 bottles a year and exports 70 percent of them.

Yaakov Berg, owner of Psagot winery, near the Palestinian West Bank city of Ramallah.Emmanuel Dunand / AFP via Getty Images file

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Days after the European ruling however, Pompeo announced that the U.S. was reversing its decadeslong policy that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal. Washington would no longer take up a position on the legality of any settlement, leaving the decision to the Israeli courts, he said.

In a sign of his gratitude, Berg named a “special” wine after Pompeo, made from cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot grapes.

“The U.S. administration’s message is extremely important and strengthens our ongoing fight against the boycott and hypocrisy campaign that the European Court of Justice has given,” Berg said in a message on Psagot Winery’s website explaining the background of the wine. “We will continue this just and moral struggle.”

In visiting the winery Thursday, Pompeo not only attempted to lend legitimacy to Israeli settlements, but also brought with him more tangible gifts.

In a statement he said 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 — where the winery is located — is the roughly 60 percent of the West Bank where Israel exercises near full control and where most Jewish settlements are located.

Pompeo also announced 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.

BDS said it has “consistently and categorically” rejected all forms of racism.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh meanwhile, said last week that Pompeo’s visit set a "dangerous precedent" that "legalizes settlements."

A worker pours wine into a barrel at Psagot winery in the Israeli settlement of Psagot adjacent to the Palestinian West Bank city of Ramallah.Emmanuel Dunand / AFP via Getty Images file

The Psagot Winery is located in a industrial zone built by settlers not far from the Palestinian city of Ramallah. Its vineyards are scattered across the West Bank on land claimed by Palestinians.

Odeh Hamayel, said his 90-year-old grandfather, a U.S. citizen, owns more than four acres of land that was confiscated to enlarge the Psagot settlement.

NBC has seen documents that show Hamayel’s grandfather owns land where the Psagot settlement is now built. NBC could not, however, verify that it was used by Psagot Winery.

“‘Where are my rights when my land, as a U.S. citizen for over 50 years, has been confiscated so that an Israeli settler can open up a business and profit from it,’” said Hamayel, imitating what his grandfather might say if he were given the opportunity to meet Pompeo.

“When Pompeo decides that he’s going to step foot in that settlement block, he’s stepping into something that violates international law,” Hamayel added, speaking for himself. “He should know better.”

Paul Goldman reported from the Psagot Winery, Lawahez Jabari from Al-Bireh in the West Bank and Saphora from London, England.