Israeli settlements don't violate international law, U.S. says in major policy reversal

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the shift in position a recognition of "the reality on the ground."

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By Josh Lederman and Abigail Williams

The United States on Monday reversed its decadeslong position that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal, in the latest step by the Trump administration to solidify Israeli control over areas claimed by Palestinians for a future independent state.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a press conference that declaring the settlements were in violation of international law had not worked in bringing about Israeli-Palestinian peace, calling the shift in position a recognition of "the reality on the ground." He said from now on, the U.S. would take no position on the legality of any individual Israeli settlement, instead leaving that decision up to Israeli courts.

"After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate, this administration agrees with President [Ronald] Reagan: the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law," Pompeo said.

The historic shift is the latest blow to Palestinian aspirations for statehood under the Trump administration, which also shuttered the de facto Palestinian embassy in Washington and moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem for the capital of a future state.

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The reversal comes as the Trump administration maintains that it still intends to release a long-delayed Mideast peace plan drafted by President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner along with a few top aides. The Palestinians have rejected any potential proposal and said the Trump administration has disqualified itself as a broker for Mideast peace by granting countless concessions to Israel.

Still, Pompeo said the U.S. was "not addressing or prejudging the ultimate status of the West Bank," arguing it was something Israelis and Palestinians must negotiate between themselves.

Hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis live in settlements constructed in the West Bank, which Israel seized along with east Jerusalem in 1967. Israel quickly annexed east Jerusalem, but not the West Bank. All serious peace proposals for decades have assumed that a future Palestinian state would be established in the West Bank, possibly with "land swaps" to allow some major settlements already built in the West Bank to remain under Israeli control.

The United Nations and most of the international community considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be illegal. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to annex Jewish settlements as he struggles to salvage his hold on political power in Israel.

Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz, who is currently tasked with trying to form a governing coalition in Israel, praised the decision in a statement saying the fate of West Bank settlements and their residents "should be determined by agreements that meet security requirements and that can promote peace."

"I applaud the U.S. government for its important statement, once again demonstrating its firm stance with Israel and its commitment to the security and future of the entire Middle East," Gantz said.

But Martin Indyk, the former U.S. special envoy for Middle East Peace under the Obama administration, on Twitter denounced the decision as "totally gratuitous."

The decision, first reported by The Associated Press, rejects a 1978 legal opinion by the State Department legal adviser at the time, Herbert J. Hansell. Since 1978 and until the Trump administration, the U.S. has been consistent in maintaining that settlement construction violated international law, although different presidents have been more or less vociferous in pushing back on continued Israeli construction in the West Bank.

U.S. policy under the Trump administration has been tacitly, if not explicitly, supportive of Israel’s expanded civilian settlements into the occupied West Bank, an about-face from the previous administration. In the final days of his administration, then-President Barack Obama infuriated Israel’s government by allowing the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution demanding Israel "immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem," and declaring that Israeli settlements have "no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law."

Paul Goldman contributed.