US no longer views Israeli settlements as 'inconsistent with international law'

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday that the US was overturning its long-standing position on Israeli settlements in the West Bank by no longer viewing them as "inconsistent with international law".

Overturning more than four decades of US policy, Pompeo's announcement was a victory for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is struggling to remain in power after two inconclusive Israeli elections this year.

US policy had long been based on a legal opinion issued by the State Department in 1978 that found establishing Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories went against international law.

Pompeo said that Washington's statements about the settlements in the West Bank – which Israel captured during the 1967 war – had been inconsistent. He noted that Democratic former president Jimmy Carter believed they were not consistent with international law while in office (1977-1981) while Republican president Ronald Reagan said in 1981 that he did not view them as inherently illegal.

"The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements is not, per se, inconsistent with international law," Pompeo told reporters at the State Department, drawing criticism from a senior Palestinian figure even before the announcement.

"Another blow to international law, justice & peace," Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian negotiator and member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee, said on Twitter ahead of Pompeo's statement.

Netanyahu welcomes announcement

Netanyahu welcomed the new policy, saying it "rights a historical wrong". The Israeli prime minister also called on other world powers to do likewise.  

"This policy reflects an historical truth – that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria. In fact, we are called Jews because we are the people of Judea," he said in a statement, using the biblical term for the West Bank.

But the Palestinian Authority slammed the Trump administration's new position.

The US is "not qualified or authorised to cancel the resolutions of international law, and has no right to grant legality to any Israeli settlement", Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said in a statement.

The European Union warned of the potential repercussions in a statement following the announcement that did not mention the U.S.

“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,” said the statement from the 28-nation bloc. “The EU calls on Israel to end all settlement activity, in line with its obligations as an occupying power.”

Trump's history of adopting pro-Israeli positions

Although the decision is largely symbolic, the announcement marked the third major instance in which the Trump administration has sided with Israel and against stances taken by the Palestinians and Arab states even before unveiling its long-delayed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

In 2017 Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and, in 2018, the United States formally opened an embassy in the city. US policy had previously been that the status of Jerusalem was to be decided by the parties to the conflict.

Trump recognised Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights in March in another boost for Netanyahu that prompted a sharp response from Syria, which once held the strategic land.

The timing of this latest move might have been designed to help Netanyahu as he struggles to stay in power, with Israeli politics deadlocked after two inconclusive elections this year. Former military chief Benny Gantz's centrist Blue and White party emerged neck and neck with Netanyahu following a September re-vote and both leaders have struggled to put together a ruling coalition. Gantz has until a minute to midnight on Wednesday to form a coalition government.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)