The United States has effectively backed Israel’s right to build Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank by abandoning its four-decade-old position that they were “inconsistent with international law.”
The announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was a victory for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is struggling to remain in power after two inconclusive Israeli elections this year, and a defeat for the Palestinians.
Mr Pompeo said US statements about the settlements on the West Bank, which Israel captured in 1967, had been inconsistent, saying Democratic President Jimmy Carter found they were not consistent with international law and Republican President Ronald Reagan said he did not view them as inherently illegal.
“The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements is not, per se, inconsistent with international law,” Mr Pompeo told reporters at the State Department, reversing a formal legal position taken by the United States under Mr Carter in 1978.
His announcement drew immediate praise from Mr Netanyahu, condemnation from Palestinian officials and a US warning to Americans in the region to exercise greater vigilance because those opposing the move “may target US government facilities, US private interests and US citizens.”
Mr Netanyahu said the US decision “rights a historical wrong” and called on other countries to take a similar stance.
Palestinians, however, voiced outrage.
“The United States is neither qualified nor is authorised 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, in a statement.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Trump administration was threatening “to replace international law with the ‘law of the jungle.'”
Another blow to international law, justice & peace by a Biblical absolutist waiting for the “rapture.”
Israeli settlements not ‘inconsistent with international law,’ Pompeo set to announce https://t.co/OpZ4aY8xj2
— Hanan Ashrawi (@DrHananAshrawi) November 18, 2019
Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, said the US policy change would have “dangerous consequences” for the prospects of reviving peace talks and called settlements “a blatant violation of international law and United Nations Security Council resolutions.”
Mr 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 Israeli-Palestinian 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.”
Like many of the Trump administration’s pro-Israeli moves, Mr Pompeo’s settlements announcement is likely to appeal to evangelical Christians, an important part of Mr Trump’s political base, which he is counting on to help him win re-election in 2020.
The announcement marked the third major instance in which the Trump administration has sided with Israel and against stances taken by the Palestinians and Arab states.
In 2017 Mr Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and, in 2018, the US formally opened an embassy in the city.
And in March, Mr Trump recognised Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights in a boost for Mr Netanyahu that prompted a sharp response from Syria, which once held the strategic land.
Mr Trump’s move might have been designed to help Netanyahu as he struggles to stay in power.
Israeli politics is deadlocked after two inconclusive elections this year. Former military chief Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party emerged neck and neck with Netanyahu following a September vote, and both leaders have struggled to put together a ruling coalition.
The European Union says it continues to believe that Israeli settlement activity in occupied Palestinian territory is illegal under international law and erodes prospects for lasting peace.
“The EU calls on Israel to end all settlement activity, in line with its obligations as an occupying power,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.
Her comments came after the United States effectively backed Israel’s right to build Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank by abandoning its four-decade-old position that they were “inconsistent with international law.”