Settler leaders and right-wing politicians on Monday cheered a move by the United States to repudiate a State Department legal opinion that said West Bank settlements were illegal, calling on Jerusalem to annex the territory.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday announced the softened position, the latest in a series of pro-Israel moves by US President Donald Trump’s administration.
Oded Revivi, the mayor of the large settlement of Efrat and the so-called foreign minister of the Yesha settlement council umbrella group, lauded the move and called on the Israeli government to use the opportunity to annex territory.
“Settlement is not a crime and it is not an obstacle to peace,” he said.
He noted that the shift had been pushed by US Ambassador David Friedman, who is known for his close ties to the settlement movement.
Binyamin Regional Council chairman Yisrael Gantz called the announcement a “major step toward [Israeli] sovereignty [in the West Bank].
“Now is the time for the Israeli government to declare the application of Israeli laws in Judea and Samaria,” he added, using the biblical name for the West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed before the April election to apply Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements, a move tantamount to annexation. Before the September elections, he promised to annex the Jordan Valley, a region within the West Bank.
Responding to the announcement, Netanyahu feted Pompeo Monday night, but did not mention the annexation pledge.
“The United States adopted an important policy that rights a historical wrong when the Trump administration clearly rejected the false claim that Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria are inherently illegal under international law,” he said.
Pompeo said Monday night that US policy was backtracking from a 1978 State Department legal opinion that held that civilian settlements in the West Bank are “inconsistent with international law.” The move drew angry condemnations from Palestinians and others who said it would harm chances of a peace deal based on a two-state solution.
“We warn against dangerous consequences of US change of position,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi tweeted.
The Palestinians claim the West Bank as their future state and say Israeli attempts to annex the land will make a viable Palestinian state impossible.
The Trump administration views the 1978 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 told the media.
“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law has not advanced the cause of peace,” Pompeo said. “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.”
National Union leader Bezalel Smotrich indicated that the decision was sparked by last week’s European Court of Justice ruling that said products made in Israeli settlements must be labeled as such — mentioning that he had met aides for US Ambassador David Friedman at the time and asked them to cancel the Hansell Memorandum.
“I congratulate the US president on his correct decision… as I suggested a few days ago during my meeting with Ambassador Friedman’s staff,” Smotrich wrote. “This is certainly a worthy response to last week’s European Union court decision. We are advancing international recognition of the settlement project.”
However, US and Israeli officials said the shift had been in the works for months.
Nonetheless, Psagot Winery, which is located in the West Bank and sparked the EU court decision, similarly said that ruling had played an important role in driving the US policy change.
“The support we received in many sectors in the US, including Democrats, Republicans and within the State Department, created a critical mass,” said Psagot CEO Yaakov Berg. “We will continue fighting everywhere in the world against boycott attepts and for the benefit of the State of Israel and the Israeli industry.”
Former justice minister Ayelet Shaked of the New Right party reacted by saying that “now is the time to apply our sovereignty to these communities.”
“The Jewish People have the legal & moral right to live in their ancient homeland,” she said in a tweet.
The Jewish People have the legal & moral right to live in their ancient homeland
Now is the time to apply our sovereignty to these communities
— איילת שקד ayelet shaked (@Ayelet__Shaked) November 18, 2019
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan of the ruling Likud party said the decision “will help us stop and thwart boycott attacks against Israel that are focused on the West Bank.”
He called on Jerusalem to endorse the Edmond Levy report, authored by a former Israeli Supreme Court judge, which concludes that West Bank settlements are legal.
A hard-line group pushing for annexation, called the Sovereignty Movement, said in a statement that the administration’s decision would help Israel claim West Bank lands.
“The sovereignty process continues to progress step by step as a just and moral act that will create regional stability and security,” the group’s leaders said in a statement.
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.
Previous pro-Israel Trump administration moves have included the 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.
Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and later began settling the newly conquered territories. Today, some 700,000 Israeli settlers live in the two areas, which are 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.
AP contributed to this report.