Updated Nov 18, 2019

Pompeo announces U.S. will no longer view Israeli settlements as illegal

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo: Janek SkarzynskiI/AFP via Getty Images

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday that the U.S. will no longer view Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem as "inconsistent with international law."

Why it matters: This move is an important shift because it cancels a legal position held by the U.S. State Department since 1978, when the Carter administration determined that the settlements were a violation of international law.

  • On the other hand, the move is mostly symbolic and will have no practical implications. The Trump administration didn’t see the settlements as illegal and this decision today will simply make it a more formal position.

Behind the scenes: A senior Israeli official told me Israel was consulted by the Trump administration on this issue several months ago. He said the U.S. wanted to know if this decision could harm Israel legally or internationally. Israel answered that it supports the move and that it will not harm the country in any way.

  • A U.S. official told me this decision was several months in the making and the State Department was leading the process. The official said the decision was supposed to be announced last week, but that it was postponed because of the escalation around Gaza.

Pompeo said in his remarks that the decision will reverse the Obama administration policy on settlements.

  • He stressed that unrestrained settlement activity could be an obstacle to a peace deal, but that it is not illegal.
  • “We agree with President Reagan that the settlements are not inconsistent with international law," Pompeo said.
  • Pompeo added that legal questions about settlements should be addressed by the Israeli courts, not the international community, and that the U.S. decision is not an expression of any view on Israeli court decisions regarding settlements.

Between the lines: Pompeo stressed the decision does not prejudge the final status of the West Bank, which should be negotiated between the Israelis and Palestinians. However, the announcement marks yet another instance of the Trump administration moving to weaken Palestinian efforts to achieve statehood.

What they're saying:

  • Pompeo: "Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law has not advanced the cause of peace. The hard truth is that there will never be a judicial resolution to the conflict, and arguments about who is right and who is wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace.”
  • Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu: "Israel remains ready and willing to conduct peace negotiations with the Palestinians regarding all final status issues in an effort to achieve a durable peace but will continue to reject all arguments regarding the illegality of the settlements. Israel is deeply grateful to President Trump, Secretary Pompeo and the entire US administration for their steadfast position supporting  truth and justice, and calls upon all responsible countries who hope to advance peace to adopt a similar position."
  • PLO official Saeb Erekat: "Israeli settlements steal Palestinian land, seize and exploit Palestinian natural resources, and divide, displace and restrict the movement of the people of Palestine. In sum, Israel's colonial-settlement enterprise perpetuates the negation of the Palestinian right to self-determination. 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.'"

The latest: Netanyahu and Trump spoke on the phone this evening, their first call since Israel's elections two months ago. Netanyahu thanked Trump for the announcement.

Go deeper: EU court rules products from Israeli settlements must be labeled

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