Pompeo announces Israeli settlements do not violate international law

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday that the U.S. will not consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank a violation of international law, putting American policy at odds with the widely held belief that settlement expansion is harmful to the Israeli and Palestinan peace process.

Pompeo said that the decision helps strengthen the U.S.’s position ahead of the expected release of its Mideast peace plan, authored by President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. The secretary didn’t give an update on any expected date for that plan, but said the U.S. will release it “when the conditions are right.”

Pompeo also said the U.S. announcement recognizes the “reality” on the ground and is specific to Israel, not applying to other territorial disputes.

He added that the decision is based on the “unique facts, history and circumstances” of the West Bank.    

Israel took over the West Bank of the Jordan Valley following the 1967 Six-Day War. There are an estimated 700,000 Israelis living in communities on the West Bank in areas where Palestinians claim land rights and which they say are important for a future Palestinian state.

Pompeo said that Monday’s recognition was a repudiation of the Obama administration’s failure to veto a December 2016 United Nations Security Council resolution affirming Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and east Jerusalem as a “flagrant violation of international law.”

The U.S. abstained from the vote.

Pompeo also said on Monday the timing of the announcement followed the completion of a legal analysis review and was not meant to interfere with the domestic politics of Israel.

Benny Gantz, leader of Israel’s Democratic Union party, has until Wednesday to secure a ruling majority following recent national elections. If he can’t, the country faces the likelihood of going to an unprecedented third election.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has played up his personal relationship with President Trump to shore up support among his political base and promised to annex the West Bank and Jordan Valley if he secured the premiership again.

On Monday, Netanyahu called the the U.S. announcement “an historic day.”

“This policy reflects an historical truth — that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu said in a statement, referring to the West Bank by its biblical name.

The U.S. policy comes from a review of the 1978 Hansell Memorandum, which established American talking points related to Israeli civilian-settlement activity in areas occupied by Israel, which included the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Sinai in Egypt and the Golan Heights in Syria.

“In 1978, the Carter administration categorically concluded that Israel’s establishment of civilian settlements was inconsistent with international law,” Pompeo said on Monday. “However, in 1981, President Reagan disagreed with that resolution and stated that he didn’t believe that the settlements were inherently illegal.

“…this administration agrees with President Reagan,” the secretary added.

Reactions to the ruling fell along ideological lines, with Trump supporters celebrating the announcement and critics raising the alarm of further threat to a two-state solution to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict.

“This announcement is a repudiation of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s ill-informed efforts to target Israeli presence in the West Bank,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement. “While I strongly support a two-state solution, I believe the Trump administration’s announcement today will ultimately advance the cause of peace over time.”

Pastor John Hagee, the founder and Chairman of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), one of the largest evangelical and pro-Israel organizations, also welcomed the announcement.

“Thank you Secretary Pompeo for revoking the Hansell opinion of 1978 that held civilian settlements in Israel were not legal under international law,” he said in a statement.

“CUFI has opposed the Hansell opinion, as it pre-judged the outcome of any future discussions between Israel and the Palestinians; as such, we welcome its revocation.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a bipartisan, pro-Israel lobbying organization, opposed international pressure on Israel over its settlement activity.

“We believe settlements should be an issue for direct negotiations between the parties, not something determined by international bodies,” the organization said in a statement. “The Palestinians must stop their boycott of US & Israeli officials and return to direct talks.”

Analysts said the U.S. announcement has little practical implications but that it does further endanger any two-state solution.

“So in one sense, little changes. But to the degree that this decision is seen as a green light to encourage settlement expansion, it should be clear that it continues Trump’s steady effort to bury the two-state solution,” Daniel Shapiro, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, wrote in an email to The Hill.

The Trump administration has failed to endorse a two-state solution to the Israeli and Palestinian peace conflict, instead referring to its expected peace plan as a “vision.”

Critics say steps by the White House, including moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the Golan Heights as part of Israel and defunding UNRWA, the main Palestinian aid agency for refugees, takes away leverage to bring Israel back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians.  

Saeb Erakat, chief Palestinian negotiator and secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the international representative body for Palestinians, called on the international community to resist the U.S. statement of policy.

“The international community must take all necessary measures to respond and deter this irresponsible U.S. behavior, which poses a threat to global security and peace,” Erakat said.

“Once again, with this announcement, the Trump administration is demonstrating the extent to which it’s [threatening] the international system with its unceasing attempts to replace international law with the ‘law of the jungle,’” he added.

—Updated at 5:26 p.m.

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Donald Trump israeli settlements Jared Kushner John Kerry Lindsey Graham Middle East peace plan Mike Pompeo
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