By Lara Jakes and David M. Halbfinger
The Trump administration declared on Monday that the United States does not consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank a violation of international law, reversing four decades of U.S. policy and removing what has been an important barrier to annexation of Palestinian territory.
The announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the latest political gift from the Trump administration to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vowed in two elections this year to push for the annexation of the West Bank. His chief opponent, Benny Gantz, has until Wednesday night to gather a majority in Israel’s Parliament or he will relinquish his chance to form a new government, raising the prospect of a third round of elections.
The United States has in the past described the settlements as illegitimate, and Palestinians have demanded the land for a future state, a goal that has been backed by the United Nations, European governments and U.S. allies across the Middle East.
But President Donald Trump has been persistent in changing U.S. policy on Israel and the Palestinian territories — moves aimed at bolstering political support for Netanyahu, who has failed to form a government after two rounds of elections with razor-thin outcomes.
Monday’s decision reversed a 1978 legal opinion by the State Department concluding that the settlements were inconsistent with international law. Pompeo said that ruling “hasn’t advanced the cause of peace.”
“We’ve recognized the reality on the ground,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department. The settlements have been a main sticking point in peace negotiations that have failed to find a solution for generations. They are home to Israelis in territory that Palestinians have fought to control, and their presence makes negotiations for a two-state solution all the more difficult. The two-state solution has been a primary focus of past peace plans, calling for a separate state for Palestinians.
Netanyahu praised the decision and said it reflected “historical truth — that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria,” a term for the West Bank. He said Israeli courts were better suited to decide the legality of the settlements, “not biased international forums that pay no attention to history or facts.”
Gantz, a former army chief and centrist candidate who has the support of the Israeli left and some Arab lawmakers, politely welcomed the announcement but said that the fate of West Bank settlements “should be determined by agreements that meet security requirements and that can promote peace.” Palestinian officials, by now used to unwelcome policy shifts from Trump, nonetheless summoned new outrage.
“We cannot express horror and shock because this is a pattern, but that doesn’t make it any less horrific,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestine Liberation Organization official. “It sends a clear signal that they have total disregard for international law, for what is right and just, and for the requirements of peace.”
And Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the Trump administration’s decision was the latest of “unceasing attempts to replace international law with the ‘law of the jungle.’”
Within hours of the announcement, the State Department issued a travel alert to Americans planning to visit Jerusalem, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. “Those opposed to the Secretary of State’s announcement may target US govt facilities, interests, and citizens,” the department said on Twitter.
In Washington, Pompeo said the decision would provide greater space for the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate over the status of the settlements. He said that the issue could be largely left to Israeli courts to decide, and that it had no bearing on legal conclusions regarding similar situations elsewhere in the world.
Instead, Pompeo said, the issue must be solved by the Israelis and the Palestinians. “And arguments about who is right and wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace,” he said.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, criticized the U.S. policy shift and maintained that the settlements were illegal and eroded the chances for peace. She called on Israel to “end all settlement activity, in line with its obligations as an occupying power.”
Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi of Jordan, which is the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, said on Twitter that the settlements “kill 2-state solution” efforts. A prime mover in the policy change was David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, who has pushed each of the Trump administration’s major policy gifts to Netanyahu.
Friedman signaled a shift in U.S. policy toward settlements in occupied Palestinian territory in June, in an interview with The New York Times. He said that Israel had the right to annex some, but “unlikely all,” of the West Bank.
Oded Revivi, a spokesman for the Yesha Council, an umbrella group of West Bank settlements, said he believed the timing of the announcement sought to both help Netanyahu remain in power and also bolster Trump among evangelical and Jewish voters in the United States who support the current right-wing government in Israel. He said it also served as a reminder to right-wing Israelis to reap whatever more windfalls the Trump administration might supply.
“It’s an indication to the Israeli public, look where you can go with this president — you’re wasting time,” said Revivi, the mayor of Efrat, a West Bank settlement near Jerusalem.
He said the policy shift was a move toward endorsing annexation and also served as a clear indication to the Palestinians who have resisted reopening negotiations with the Trump administration.
Opponents of annexation, however, warn that it puts Israel’s status as a Jewish democracy at risk in two ways: If the West Bank’s Palestinians are made Israeli citizens, the country’s Arabs could quickly outnumber its Jews. If they are not given full citizenship rights, Israel would become an apartheid state.
“We are strong enough to deter and defeat our enemies,” said Nimrod Novik, an aide to Shimon Peres, a former Israeli prime minister who shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his efforts to end the conflict.
Referring to Israel’s air-defense system, Novik added: “What we don’t have is an Iron Dome system to defend us from friends who threaten to end the Zionist vision.”