The administration of US President Donald Trump on Monday said that it no longer considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be a breach of international law, reversing four decades of US policy and further undermining Palestinians’ efforts to gain statehood.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US is repudiating the US Department of State’s 1978 legal opinion that civilian settlements in the occupied territories are “inconsistent with international law.”
Israeli leaders welcomed the decision, while Palestinians and other nations warned that it undercut any chance of a broader peace deal.
The Trump administration believes that any legal questions about the settlements should be resolved by Israeli courts and that declaring them a breach of international law distracts from larger efforts to negotiate a peace deal, Pompeo told reporters at the department.
“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law has not advanced the cause of peace,” Pompeo said. “The hard truth is that there will never be a judicial resolution to the conflict, and arguments about who is right and who is wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace.”
The change reflects the administration’s embrace of a hardline Israeli view at the expense of the Palestinian quest for statehood.
Similar actions have included Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the moving of the US embassy to that city and the closure of the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington.
“The US administration has lost its credibility to play any future role in the peace process,” said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The EU warned of the potential repercussions in a statement following the announcement that did not mention the US.
“All settlement activity is illegal under international law and it erodes the viability of the two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace,” the statement said. “The EU calls on Israel to end all settlement activity, in line with its obligations as an occupying power.”
Even though the decision is largely symbolic, it could give a boost to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is fighting for his political survival after failing to form a coalition government following two inconclusive elections this year.
It could also spell further trouble for the administration’s peace plan, which is unlikely to gather much international support by endorsing a position contrary to the global consensus.
The Netanyahu government was last week dealt a blow when the European Court of Justice ruled that products made in Israeli settlements must be labeled as such.
The 1978 legal opinion on settlements is known as the Hansell Memorandum. It had been the basis for more than 40 years of carefully worded US opposition to settlement construction that had varied in its tone and strength, depending on the president’s position.
The international community overwhelmingly considers the settlements illegal based in part on the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bars an occupying power from transferring parts of its own civilian population to occupied territory.
In the final days of former US president Barack Obama’s administration, the US allowed the UN Security Council to pass a resolution declaring the settlements a “flagrant violation” of international law.
Pompeo said that the US would not take a position on the legality of specific settlements, that the new policy would not extend beyond the West Bank and that it would not create a precedent for other territorial disputes.
The decision did not mean the administration was prejudging the status of the West Bank in any eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, he added.
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