Trump changes decades-old U.S. position on Israeli settlements
WASHINGTON — Reversing decades of carefully worded U.S. policy, the Trump administration on Monday said that, in its view, Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank do not violate international law.
The move could clear the way for Israel’s annexation of settlements on the disputed land and runs counter to most of the international community, which has declared that under the Geneva Convention, Jewish settlements built on land seized by Israel during the 1967 Middle East War are illegal. The convention bars an occupying power from transferring parts of its own civilian population to occupied territory.
President Donald Trump’s new position also further undermined Palestinians’ bid for statehood and greatly reduced chances of renewing peace talks, Mideast experts said.
For many years U.S. policy has been intentionally vague on the sensitive issue of settlements’ legal status. The clearest statement came under President Jimmy Carter in a 1978 State Department legal opinion, which found settlements to be “inconsistent with international law.”
President Ronald Reagan said in an interview that he disagreed with that view, but his administration held to a policy in favor of freezing settlements.
Since then, presidents and administrations from both political parties have largely avoided any formal legal opinions about the settlements, instead calling them “unhelpful,” “provocative” or a hindrance to peace. Additionally, Trump’s predecessors had pressed Israel to varying degrees to stop building settlements on land that Palestinians hope to one day make part of their state.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said Monday that the Trump administration disagreed with the 1978 State Department legal opinion.
“The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law,” Pompeo said.
It was unclear exactly what actions the administration was taking and whether it was formally rescinding the 1978 opinion. Pompeo said the new U.S. position was intended to jump-start peace talks.
“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law hasn’t worked. It hasn’t advanced the cause of peace,” Pompeo told reporters in a hurriedly called news conference.
The announcement drew immediate criticism from Palestinians and Israeli organizations that advocate for a peaceful, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“This is not at all constructive for a legitimate peaceful solution,” said David Halperin, executive director of the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-Israel U.S. organization that advocates for a two-state solution.
“It will continue to breathe life into the Israeli right” and give a green light to eventual annexation of the West Bank, depriving the Palestinians of an independent homeland once and for all, he said in a telephone interview.
Israel’s settlement construction has skyrocketed over the last few decades, and the settlements now house more than 400,000 Israelis. Palestinians say the scattered Jewish communities already make it difficult to create a single, contiguous Palestinian state. In past peace talks, Palestinians have demanded that Israeli settlement construction be halted and existing settlements be removed.