US Democratic presidential candidates, including frontrunners Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, on Monday condemned US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement that the Trump administration was softening its position on Israeli settlements.
Pompeo told reporters at the State Department 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.
Former vice president Joe Biden’s campaign called the move “an obstacle to peace.”
“This decision harms the cause of diplomacy, takes us further away from the hope of a two-state solution, and will only further inflame tensions in the region. It’s not about peace or security. It is not about being pro-Israel. It is about undercutting Israel’s future in service of Trump’s personal politics,” Biden’s campaign told Jewish Insider.
Vermont Senator Sanders denounced the move, saying that “Israeli settlements in occupied territory are illegal. This is clear from international law and multiple United Nations resolutions. Once again, Mr. Trump is isolating the United States and undermining diplomacy by pandering to his extremist base.”
Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts senator who is vying with Sanders for the more progressive voters in the party, similarly condemned the announcement.
“Another blatantly ideological attempt by the Trump administration to distract from its failures in the region. Not only do these settlements violate international law — they make peace harder to achieve. As president, I will reverse this policy and pursue a two-state solution,” Warren said.
Pete Buttigieg, the centrist mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and another leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, said the decision undermined peace efforts.
“The Trump administration’s statement on West Bank settlements is not only a significant step backward in our efforts to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is the latest in a pattern of destructive decisions that harm our national interests,” Buttigieg said.
Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota senator who is not among the leading candidates, said that the decision “goes against long-standing US policy. Once again Donald Trump is playing politics and taking us further away from a path to a two-state solution.”
Liberal Democratic lawmakers Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, both frequent critics of Israel, also castigated the White House following the announcement.
“Israel’s settlements in the West Bank violate international law. No matter what this corrupt and immoral Trump regime (yeah he is a lawless king-like dictator) say, it doesn’t change that fact. #FreePalestine & #ImpeachmentTrumpNow,” Tlaib, a House Representative from Michigan, wrote on Twitter.
Minnesota Congresswoman Omar said that “Israeli settlements violate [international] law, decades of US foreign policy, and the human rights of Palestinians. All who believe in the possibility of peace must speak up in this moment.”
Some Republican lawmakers came out in favor of the move.
“This announcement is a repudiation of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s ill-informed efforts to target Israeli presence in the West Bank. While I strongly support a two-state solution, I believe the Trump Administration’s announcement today will ultimately advance the cause of peace over time,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said the decision helped reverse the “disgraceful legacy” of the Obama administration’s policy toward Israel.
“For too long, the US has been slow to acknowledge the basic reality that our Israeli allies have sovereignty over their territories, and today the administration took steps to right that wrong,” Cruz said.
Pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC said that it “does not take a position on settlements. We believe settlements should be an issue for direct negotiations between the parties, not something determined by international bodies. The Palestinians must stop their boycott of US & Israeli officials and return to direct talks.”
US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft wrote on Twitter following the announcement: “While #Israel is surrounded by neighbors who seek its destruction, the international community has the audacity to make this nation the subject of its harshest criticism. I will not stand for this, today or any day.”
“To be clear, the United States remains fully committed to the cause of peace. Today’s announcement does not alter this fact. And just as we are committed to peace, we are committed to #Israel,” Craft wrote.
Human Rights Watch said in response to the announcement that “Israeli settlements remain war crimes.”
“This changes nothing. President Trump can’t wipe away decades of established international law that settlements are a war crime. The US has long benefited from adherence to the laws of war and should not abandon that, especially at the expense of Palestinian civilians,” said Andrea Prasow, the nonprofit’s acting Washington director.
The Jewish Democratic Council of America’s Executive Director Halie Soifer said Pompeo’s “reversal of decades of US policy is a green light for Israeli annexation of the West Bank, which will permanently impede prospects for a two state solution.” She said Trump “doesn’t understand what it means to be pro-Israel and Jewish voters reject his recklessness.”
The liberal Mideast policy organization J Street described the move as a “destructive gift” to the Israeli right, and accused Washington of “shattering America’s limited remaining credibility in the region and around the world.”
“This announcement is just the latest in a long series of actions by the Trump administration designed to aid the Israeli settlement movement, prevent a two-state solution and provide political gifts to Prime Minister Netanyahu,” J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami said in a statement.
“The timing of this announcement can only be read as last-ditch attempt to boost the prime minister’s personal prospects,” Ben-Ami added, referring to Netanyahu’s struggle to remain in office following inconclusive elections, as well as the three corruption cases facing the prime minister.
Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer praised the shift in US policy.
“In rejecting the foundational lie that the Jewish people are foreign colonialists in our own homeland, President Trump, Secretary Pompeo and US Ambassador to Israel Friedman have made an essential contribution to the advance of peace,” Dermer tweeted.
Pompeo made the statement in a Monday press conference at the State Department, the latest in a series of Trump administration moves that weaken Palestinian claims to statehood.
The secretary of state repudiated a 1978 State Department legal opinion that held that civilian settlements in the occupied territories are “inconsistent with international law.” The move angered Palestinians and immediately 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, Pompeo said.
US moves that have weakened Palestinian efforts to achieve statehood have included Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the transfer of the US embassy to that city, and the closure of the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington. Those moves have been widely, though not universally, welcomed in Israel.
Even though the latest decision is largely symbolic, it could give a boost to Prime Minister Benjamin 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 the global consensus.
Trump himself has not yet made a statement on the changed policy.