Netanyahu and Gantz both fete US for changing tack on settlements
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Netanyahu and Gantz both fete US for changing tack on settlements

Right-wing and centrist lawmakers celebrate decision, but left says announcement will make two-state solution more difficult

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

US President Donald Trump holds up a signed proclamation recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Illustrative: US President Donald Trump holds up a signed proclamation recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief challenger Benny Gantz both lauded the US decision to repudiate its official legal opinion that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal Monday night.

Netanyahu said the decision, announced by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to back off the US stance that settlements are illegal under international law, was “righting a historical wrong.”

“This policy reflects a historical truth — that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu said in a statement, referring referring to the West Bank by its biblical name.

Netanyahu lauded Pompeo’s pronouncement that the US would defer to Israel’s courts to determine the legality of settlements.

“Israel’s legal system, which has proven itself fully capable of addressing legal questions related to the settlements, is the appropriate place for these matters to be adjudicated — not biased international forums that pay no attention to history or facts,” he said.

“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.

The entrance to the settlement of Yitzhar, in the West Bank on October 20, 2019. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

A senior Israeli official told reporters on condition of anonymity that Netanyahu had been pushing for the policy change “for a number of months.”

The issue was advanced in cooperation with the National Security Council and the department for international law at the attorney general’s office, the official said.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz similarly lauded the US decision announced by Pompeo.

“The fate of the settlements and the residents of Judea and Samaria should be determined by agreements that meet security requirements and that can promote a peace that will serve both sides while reflecting the reality on the ground,” Gantz wrote in a tweet.

Moshe Ya’alon, who represents the most right-wing flank of Blue and White, also praised the decision.

Both the right-wing Netanyahu and centrist Gantz say they support continued settlement building, and both have expressed support for annexation of the Jordan Valley, a corridor of land where the West Bank meets Jordan.

Netanyahu, who is stuck in a political deadlock with Gantz as moribund coalition talks have dragged on, used Pompeo’s announcement to campaign against his rival.

A screenshot of Gantz’s post was shared by Netanyahu’s spokesman who highlighted the words “both sides,” in an apparent mockery of the Blue and White chairman’s concern for Palestinians as well as Israelis.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz speaks to reporters near the West Bank settlement on Migdal Oz, after yeshiva student Dvir Yehuda was killed in a terror attack, on August 8, 2019. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Netanyahu also used the opportunity to once again attack Blue and White for allegedly working toward forming a minority government that would rely on outside support from the majority-Arab Joint List. The Likud chairman renewed his claim that the Joint List lawmakers are supporters of terror in a video statement responding to the Pompeo announcement.

Several senior right-wing lawmakers, including New Right No. 2 Ayelet Shaked, said that the policy shift should be used as a springboard off of which Israel should move to annex the West Bank.

“Now is the time to apply our sovereignty to these communities,” Shaked said in a statement. “The Jewish People have the legal & moral right to live in their ancient homeland.”

“There is no doubt around the rights of the nation of Israel in the Land of Israel,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz (Likud) said in a statement.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana (also Likud) said the move “recognizes the Israeli nation’s connection to the Land of Israel and the deep connection between the two leaders, Netanyahu and Trump.”

Amir Peretz, head of the center-left Labor-Gesher faction, said the US move would make it harder for Israel to reach a two-state deal with the Palestinians.

“Generations of Israelis have been paying the price of the conflict, which is a strategic problem for Israel, not America. The assertion that the settlements are legal will give legitimacy for millions of Palestinians to demand full citizenship and equal rights. It’s either two states or one that is non-Zionist and non-Jewish. There is no third option,” he said.

Democratic Camp members Ehud Barak and Yair Golan (R) visit the West Bank settlement of Ariel on July 16, 2019. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Elsewhere on the left side of the political spectrum, responses were also less positive.

Democratic Camp chairman Nitzan Horowitz called the US announcement “wrong and harmful” asserting that settlements are a “central obstacle to peace.”

“They are illegal according to any definition of international law and harm Israeli interests as well as the Palestinians, of course. The United States should have called for a cessation of construction in the settlements and an immediate renewal of the peace process. There is no other solution to the conflict except for the two-state solution,” Horowitz said in a statement.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties in the Knesset, wrote on Twitter that the US change in policy toward West Bank settlements will not “change the fact that the settlements were built on occupied land upon which an independent Palestinian state will be founded alongside Israel.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, November 18, 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Pompeo in a press conference declared that the US was 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.

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 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.

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)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, condemned Pompeo’s announcement and said settlements are illegal under international law. “The US administration has lost its credibility to play any future role in the peace process,” he said.

Even though the decision is largely symbolic, it could 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 the global consensus.

Yesha settlement umbrella council foreign envoy and Efrat Local Council chairman Oded Revivi told The Times of Israel that US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman was personally involved in initiating the policy change over the past several weeks and months. Friedman is known for his close ties to the settlement movement and served as the chairman of the American Friends of Beit El organization before becoming ambassador.

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