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Trump administration says Israel’s West Bank settlements do not violate international law

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Nov. 18 that the United States will no longer view Israeli settlements as “inconsistent with international law." (Video: The Washington Post)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that the Trump administration had determined that Israel’s West Bank settlements do not violate international law, a decision he said had “increased the likelihood” of a Middle East peace settlement.

Pompeo said the Trump administration, as it did with recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and Israel’s sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights, had simply “recognized the reality on the ground.”

The move upends more than 40 years of U.S. policy that has declared Israeli expansion into territories occupied since the 1967 war a major obstacle to settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In response to a question, Pompeo denied that the announcement was connected to turmoil in Israel in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has supported the Israeli annexation of West Bank territory, is fighting for his political life.

“The timing of this was not tied to anything that had to do with domestic politics anywhere,” he said. “We conducted our review, and this was the appropriate time to bring it forward.”

More than 700,000 settlers have taken up residence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the 1967 war. Both areas are claimed by Palestinians for a future state.

Since Israel first occupied the territories, only the Carter administration, based on a 1978 State Department legal opinion, has outright declared settlements illegal, although all administrations since then have described them as an impediment to peace and have called for freezing settlement expansion and new construction.

A month before President Trump took office, Barack Obama — whose administration referred to settlements as “illegitimate” — became the first U.S. president to withhold a veto from one of countless U.N. resolutions that described them as illegal. In one of its final acts in office, that administration abstained from a U.N. vote that called settlements “a flagrant violation under international law,” allowing it to pass.

Then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry, in a speech explaining the abstention, referred to “the proliferation of settlement outposts that are illegal under Israel’s own laws.”

Pompeo said the administration was returning to policy under Ronald Reagan, pointing out that Reagan said in a 1981 interview that settlements were “not illegal.” Reagan went on in that interview, however, to say that settlements were “ill-advised.” His subsequent 1983 peace plan said that “the immediate adoption of a settlements freeze by Israel, more than any other action,” would enhance the prospects for peace.

“The United States government is expressing no view on the legal status of any individual settlement,” Pompeo said. Such assessments, he said, were up to Israeli courts, and “we are not addressing or prejudging the ultimate status of the West Bank. This is for the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate.”

The announcement drew immediate criticism as ill-timed, and skepticism that it was unrelated to both Israeli and U.S. politics.

“I’m mystified by the timing,” said Dennis Ross, who played a lead role in shaping Middle East policy under several administrations from Reagan to Obama. “If you were still interested in presenting the Trump peace plan, you wouldn’t want to do something that puts key Arab leaders . . . in a position where they would be much more moved to oppose it.”

Introduction of the Middle East peace plan that Trump promised at the beginning of his administration has been delayed repeatedly.

Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace negotiator under Republican and Democratic administrations, said that “in essence, this has validated and greenlighted the entire settlement enterprise . . . at a time when the peace process is all but comatose, and they know it probably won’t reemerge.”

In Israel, both Netanyahu and former army chief Benny Gantz, who are each vying to form a government following deadlocked elections in September, hailed the shift.

“The fate of the settlements and the residents of Judea and Samaria should be determined by agreements that meet security requirements and that can promote peace,” Gantz said in a statement, using the biblical names for the West Bank that have become the popular parlance among Israelis in recent years.

Netanyahu, who has been a staunch supporter of settlements and proposed annexing the Jordan Valley into Israel proper, praised the move as reflecting “a 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.”

But Pompeo’s announcement was met with dismay by Palestinian leaders as well as peace advocates who view the expansion of settlements as lessening the likelihood — and the size — of a possible future Palestinian state.

“Israeli settlements steal Palestinian land, seize and exploit Palestinian natural resources, and divide, displace and restrict the movement of the people of Palestine,” Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in a statement. “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.’ ”

Ayman Odeh, the leader of a faction of Israeli Arab members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, tweeted: “No foreign minister will change the fact that the settlements were built on occupied land where an independent Palestinian state should one day stand beside the State of Israel.”

Softening the U.S. stance on settlements comes as a late-breaking boost to Netanyahu as he clings to power at a dicey political moment; his rival Gantz has less than two days left to form a government before the process opens to free-for-all negotiations by the entire parliament. Netanyahu is also widely expected to be indicted on corruption charges in coming weeks, if not days.

“Israel is deeply grateful to President Trump, Secretary Pompeo and the entire US administration for their steadfast position supporting truth and justice,” Netanyahu said in his statement.

Pompeo also announced the cancellation of a sanctions waiver that permitted companies from the European Union and Russia to work with Iran as it converted an underground uranium-
enrichment facility into a “nuclear, physics, and technology center,” per the terms of the Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

Pompeo said that waiver will be eliminated on Dec. 15, after Iran’s announcement that it will ramp up uranium enrichment at the facility. The decision exposes foreign companies that work with Iran on the facility to U.S. penalties.

“The right amount of uranium enrichment for the world’s largest state sponsor of terror is zero,” Pompeo said.

Critics have said that terminating the waivers is needlessly vindictive and risks an even more dangerous confrontation with Iran.

In Iraq, where the government has unleashed a deadly clampdown on anti-corruption protesters, Pompeo said the United States was prepared to slap new sanctions on officials proven to be corrupt or who are involved in the violent clashes with peaceful demonstrators that have left 315 dead since last month.

“We will not stand idle while the corrupt officials make the Iraqi people suffer,” Pompeo said. “We support the Iraqi people as they strive for a prosperous Iraq that’s free of corruption. . . . Iraq’s leaders must protect human rights.”

Hendrix reported from Jerusalem.