WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Monday 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.
Pompeo said U.S. 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,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department, reversing a formal legal position taken by the United States under Carter in 1978.
His announcement drew immediate praise from Netanyahu, condemnation from Palestinian officials and a U.S. warning to Americans in the region to exercise greater vigilance because those opposing the move “may target U.S. government facilities, U.S. private interests and U.S. citizens.”
Netanyahu said the U.S. 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 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, in a statement.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Trump administration was threatening “to replace international law with the ‘law of the jungle.’”
Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, said the U.S. 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.”
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 U.S. 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, Pompeo’s settlements announcement is likely to appeal to evangelical Christians, an important part of Trump’s political base, which he is counting on to help him win re-election in 2020.
However, analysts also 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.
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 even before unveiling its long-delayed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
In 2017 Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and, in 2018, the United States formally opened an embassy in the city. U.S. policy had previously been that the status of Jerusalem was to be decided by the parties to the conflict.
And in March, Trump recognized Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights in a boost for Netanyahu that prompted a sharp response from Syria, which once held the strategic land.
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.
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. 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.
Additional reporting Steve Holland, Jonathan Landay, Lisa Lambert and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; by Stephen Farrell and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; and Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Lisa Lambert, Giles Elgood and Cynthia Osterman