The United States no longer considers Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories to be illegal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday, in the latest pro-Israel shift by Washington.
The statement puts the United States at odds with virtually all countries and U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Until now, U.S. policy was based, at least in theory, on a legal opinion issued by the State Department in 1978 which said that the establishment of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories captured a decade earlier by Israel was in violation of international law.
The Fourth Geneva Convention on the laws of war explicitly forbids moving civilians into occupied territories.
The historic reversal of U.S. policy comes just as centrist Benny Gantz races to form a government to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close ally of President Donald Trump.
“After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate,” Pompeo told reporters, the United States has concluded that “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.”
“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law hasn’t worked. It hasn’t advanced the cause of peace,” Pompeo said.
The Palestinian Authority slammed the move as “completely against international law.”
Washington is “not qualified or authorized to cancel the resolutions of international law, and has no right to grant legality to any Israeli settlement,” Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeinah said in a statement.
While the United States has generally vetoed Security Council measures critical of Israel, previous president Barack Obama – exasperated with Netanyahu – allowed the passage of Resolution 233 in his final weeks in office that called Israel’s settlements a “flagrant violation” of international law.
Pompeo said that the United States was rejecting the Obama administration’s approach, although he denied that the move was giving a green light to Israel to build more settlements, which are widely seen as detrimental, if not fatal, for the prospects of a broader peace accord.
The move will surely be interpreted as a boost for Netanyahu, who is struggling to stay in power after failing to form a coalition government.
Pompeo denied such a motivation, saying: “The timing of this was not tied to anything that had to do with domestic politics anywhere in Israel or otherwise.”
The move is the latest in a series of historic reversals of U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine under Trump.
In 2017, the U.S. officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved its embassy there in defiance of international law, which considers East Jerusalem to be an occupied Palestinian territory.
Then in March, the Trump administration recognized Israeli sovereignty of the annexed Syrian Golan Heights, also in defiance of international law including U.N. Security Council resolutions to which the U.S. was a party.