106 Democratic House members decry White House’s softened stance on settlements
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Initiated by Andy Levin, who visited in Oct. with J Street

106 Democratic House members decry White House’s softened stance on settlements

In letter to Pompeo, legislators say move discredits the United States as an honest broker, hurts peace hopes, endangers security of America, Israel, and the Palestinians

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

US President Donald Trump (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk while walking to the West Wing of the White House for a meeting, on March 25, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)
US President Donald Trump (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk while walking to the West Wing of the White House for a meeting, on March 25, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

WASHINGTON — Over 100 Democratic House members on Friday excoriated the Trump administration for softening its position on Israel’s West Bank settlements.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday announced that “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law,” breaking with decades of US policy.

The move, legislators wrote in a letter to Pompeo, made the possibility of an Israel-Palestinian peace agreement more difficult and hurt America’s interests in the Middle East.

“The announcement… has discredited the United States as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, severely damaged prospects for peace, and endangered the security of America, Israel, and the Palestinian people,” the letter says.

Orchestrated by Michigan Representative Andy Levin, a freshman Democrat, the missive was signed by several other prominent members of Congress, including Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, Rhode Island Representative David Cicilline, Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin, Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib, and others.

The lawmakers warned that the Trump administration’s decision “blatantly disregards Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention” regarding the rules governing the actions of an occupying power.

“In ignoring international law,” the letter says, “this administration has undermined America’s moral standing and sent a dangerous administration to those who do not share our values: human rights and international law, which have governed the international order and protected US troops and civilians since 1949, no longer apply.”

The liberal Mideast advocacy group J Street supported the letter.

“The administration’s decision to effectively legitimize illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank is designed to obstruct the two-state solution and could pave the way for unilateral Israeli annexation,” the group’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said in a statement.

A picture taken on February 5, 2017, from the West Bank city of Hebron shows a Palestinian boy riding a horse, with the Israeli settlement of Givat Harsina appearing in the background. (AFP PHOTO / HAZEM BADER)

“It’s extremely important that leading members of Congress are making clear that this decision undermines human rights, jeopardizes both US and Israeli interests and flouts international law.”

Since the administration of president Jimmy Carter, the United States has considered the settlements illegal, based on a 1978 State Department legal opinion known as the Hansell Memorandum. That document has been a centerpiece behind the bipartisan consensus in Washington that West Bank settlement is an obstacle to peace.

Today, some 400,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements. Over 200,000 reside in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians also claim for a future state.

Levin, who is Jewish, traveled to Israel and the West Bank earlier this month on a trip with other Congresspeople and a J Street delegation. After the visit, he tweeted his alarm at how Israel treated Palestinians.

Rep.-elect Andy Levin, D-Mich, arrives for member-elect briefings on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Specifically, he said he was enraged by the situation in Susya, where Palestinian villagers are denied water access, while Jewish settlers nearby are granted government-supplied amenities.

The international community overwhelmingly considers the settlements illegal. This is based in part on the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bars an occupying power from transferring parts of its own civilian population to occupied territory.

Israel rejects the position that the territories are occupied, maintaining that they were captured from Jordan in a defensive war and that the West Bank was merely controlled by Jordan,  but never part of the Hashemite Kingdom or any other sovereign state.

In the final days of the Obama administration, the US allowed the UN Security Council to pass a resolution declaring the settlements a “flagrant violation” of international law.

Pompeo said that the US would not take a position on the legality of specific settlements, that the new policy would not extend beyond the West Bank and that it would not create a precedent for other territorial disputes, he said.

He also said the decision did not mean the administration was prejudging the status of the West Bank in any eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Critics of the move said it would give the settlement movement tacit permission for additional construction, or even annexation, of lands claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.

The shift in US policy was widely seen as a victory for Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu, a longtime booster of the settlements, who is currently in the fight of his political life as Israel seems destined to head into its third elections in less than a year. On Thursday, Israel’s attorney-general announced he was charging Netanyahu in three corruption cases.

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