In major shift, US set to rescind stance on illegality of settlements
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In major shift, US set to rescind stance on illegality of settlements

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to repudiate 1978 State Department legal opinion that held Israeli building in the West Bank is ‘inconsistent with international law’

Israeli border police officers guard near the "Kumi Ori" outpost in the settlement of Yitzhar in the West Bank, on October 24, 2019. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)
Israeli border police officers guard near the "Kumi Ori" outpost in the settlement of Yitzhar in the West Bank, on October 24, 2019. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to announce on Monday that the US is softening its position on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the latest in a series of Trump administration moves that weaken Palestinian claims to statehood.

Pompeo plans to repudiate a 1978 State Department legal opinion that held that civilian settlements in the West Bank are “inconsistent with international law.” The move will likely please the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, anger Palestinians, and put the US at odds with other nations working to end the conflict.

The Trump administration views the opinion, the basis for long-standing US opposition to expanding the settlements, as a distraction and believes any legal questions about the issue should be addressed by Israeli courts, according to a draft of Pompeo’s remarks on the policy obtained by The Associated Press.

“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law has not advanced the cause of peace,” Pompeo says in the draft. “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.”

US administration moves that have weakened Palestinian efforts to achieve statehood have included US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the movement of the US embassy to that city, and the closure of the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington. Such moves have been largely, though not universally, welcomed in Israel.

Illustrative: Construction work in the Dagan neighborhood of the settlement of Efrat, in the West Bank on July 22, 2019. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Even though the decision is largely symbolic, it could also give a boost to Netanyahu, who is fighting for his political survival after he was unable to form a coalition government following recent elections.

In addition, it could spell further trouble for the administration’s oft-promised peace plan, which is unlikely to gather much international support by endorsing a position contrary to most countries’ view.

Israel was dealt a blow just last week when the European Court of Justice ruled products made in Israeli settlements must be labeled as such.

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a settlements champion, said he had suggested the settlement move to US Ambassador David Friedman as a response to the EU court ruling.

Former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, another right-wing leader, also praised the expected move. “It is good that the world’s greatest superpower is telling the truth and correcting this long-standing injustice,” she said in a statement.

Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee member Wasel Abu Yousef told the Times of Israel that the expected move was “an act of aggression against the Palestinian people.”

The 1978 legal opinion on settlements Pompeo is set to overturn is known as the Hansell Memorandum. It had been the basis for more than 40 years of US opposition to settlement construction that had varied in its tone and strength depending on the specific president’s position.

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, saying they were captured from Jordan in a defensive war.

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.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits the prime minister’s Sukkah, during talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on October 18, 2019. At left is US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)

Pompeo was expected to say that the US would not take a position on the legality of specific settlements and that the new policy would not extend beyond the West Bank and create a precedent for other territorial disputes.

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

The shift is a victory for Netanyahu, a longtime booster of the settlements, and was strongly supported by US Ambassador to Israel Friedman and big Trump donor Sheldon Adelson. Friedman was a major fundraiser for the settlements before becoming ambassador.

It could be taken by Netanyahu as a green light for annexation of lands claimed by the Palestinians for a future state, as the premier has promised to do before recent Israeli elections.

For Netanyahu, the welcome boost comes at a time when he has been weakened domestically by mounting legal woes and two inconclusive elections this year.

Unable to secure a parliamentary majority, Netanyahu is now anxiously waiting to see whether his chief rival, Benny Gantz, can put together a coalition. If Gantz fails and no coalition ends up being formed, the country could be forced into a third election with Netanyahu facing the distraction of a trial.

Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and later began settling the newly conquered territory. Many Jews refer to the region by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria.

Today, some 700,000 Israeli settlers live in East Jerusalem and West Bank areas captured in the 1967 war, territory which is claimed by the Palestinians for their potential state.

After the war, Israel immediately annexed East Jerusalem, home to the holy city’s most important religious sites, in a move that is not recognized by most countries.

The Palestinians and much of the world claim the settlements undermine hopes for a two-state solution by gobbling up land sought by the Palestinians.

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