WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States no longer believes that Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories are 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 UN Security Council resolutions.
“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.
Until now, US policy was based, at least in theory, on a legal opinion issued by the State Department in 1978 which said that establishing of settlements in the Palestinian territories captured a decade earlier by Israel went against international law.
The Fourth Geneva Convention on the laws of war explicitly forbids moving civilians into occupied territories.
While the United States has generally vetoed Security Council measures critical of Israel, previous president Barack Obama, exasperated with Netanyahu, in his final weeks in office allowed the passage of Resolution 2334 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.
In Jerusalem Netanyahu on Monday said the statement deeming Israeli settlement not to be illegal “rights a historical wrong”.
But the Palestinian Authority decried the US policy shift as “completely against international law”.
“This policy reflects an historical truth – that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu said in a statement, using the biblical term for the West Bank.
“In fact, we are called Jews because we are the people of Judea,” he said.
The spokesman for Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas said that was still the position under international law.
Washington is “not qualified or authorised to cancel the resolutions of international law, and has no right to grant legality to any Israeli settlement,” presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeinah said in a statement.
Pompeo’s statement comes as Netanyahu struggles to hold on to power after two inconclusive elections this year and with the prospect of a third looming.
Ahead of April polls in Israel, Trump made controversial moves seen as backing Netanyahu, including recognising Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.
Israeli settlers, part of Netanyahu’s right-wing constituency, said the US policy change paved the way for Israeli annexation of the settlements.
“We applaud the Trump administration for revealing the truth about the standing of Israeli communities in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley,” the Yesha settlements council wrote in a Hebrew language statement.
“After the American recognition, we must move to the next stage – applying sovereignty to Israeli settlement.”
Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz joined the congratulations.
“The right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is indisputable,” he said.