The US said it will no longer view Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as illegal in a move that angered Arab leaders and cast further doubt on US plans to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said on Monday that the Trump administration rejected a 1978 state department legal opinion that Israeli settlements in occupied territories are “inconsistent with international law”.
“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law has not advanced the cause of peace,” Mr Pompeo said. “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.”
The US has opposed the construction of Israeli settlements on the West Bank to varying degrees for more than 40 years, while the international community more broadly considers them illegal under the Geneva Convention.
The US announcement on Monday is the latest in a series of Trump administration moves that have undermined hopes the US president will deliver on what he has described as the “deal of the century” to end the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict. Mr Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is working on a still-to-be-unveiled peace plan that requires the backing of Arab states to succeed.
In May 2018, Mr Trump reversed seven decades of US policy and defied longstanding international consensus to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to East Jerusalem. The status of East Jerusalem is one of the most contentious issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 war and later annexed it, a move that was not recognised by much of the international community. While Israel considers the holy city its undivided capital, Palestinians see East Jerusalem as their future capital.
In March, the US also recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, reversing a half-century of US policy. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and formally annexed the territory in 1981, a move that was also rejected by the international community.
Since his election, Mr Trump has cut all aid to Palestinian refugees and denounced Palestinian leaders for refusing to co-operate with US efforts to broker a peace.
While the Trump administration’s moves have angered the Palestinians and dashed their hopes of a two-state solution, they have also frustrated the US’s Arab allies that want a resolution to the conflict.
Arabs states, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have covertly strengthened military and intelligence ties with Israel, as they share the goal of countering Iran’s regional influence. But they fear that extremism and instability in the region could be fuelled if they are seen as supporting US decisions considered so pro-Israel.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called the announcement “null and void” and contradictory to international law. “We hold the American administration fully responsible for any repercussions of this dangerous step.”
Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, warned “against dangerous consequences of US change of position on settlements” on the Middle East peace process.
The Israeli government welcomed the US announcement. Referring to the West Bank by its Hebrew name, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, said the policy “reflects an historical truth — that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria”.
“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,” he said.
Gilad Erdan, a key Netanyahu ally and Israel’s strategic affairs minister, said, “Now is the time for the Israeli government to take the strategic step of applying Israeli sovereignty over all the Jewish communities in Judea & Samaria.”
After Pompeo’s announcement, the US Embassy in Jerusalem issued a travel warning to US citizens “in or considering travel to or through Jerusalem, the West Bank, or Gaza,” adding that “individuals and groups opposed to the secretary of state’s recent announcement may target US government facilities, US private interests, and US citizens.”