US officials to Israeli TV: New settlement policy not green light for annexation

Administration figures add the move also should not be seen as support for ‘unrestrained building’; US ambassador to Israel said behind shift in American approach

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo  (center) visits the prime minister's holiday 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)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (center) visits the prime minister's holiday 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)

The new US policy to no longer considers settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem illegal “should not be seen as a green light for Israel to annex parts of the West Bank or start unrestrained building in settlements,” US officials told an Israeli news network Tuesday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly promised to quickly apply Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley if he is able to put together a new government amid ongoing political gridlock. He has indicated this would be acceptable to Washington, saying any such move would be made in “maximum coordination” with the United States.

Administration officials told Channel 13 news that the main motive for changing the policy, as announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday, was the Trump administration’s desire to reverse decisions and policy changes made by the Obama administration.

The officials also said US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman was the driving force behind Washington’s announcement.

Settler leaders attending an event to celebrate the announcement also told The Times of Israel Tuesday that Friedman personally initiated the shift in US policy.

Friedman, who is known for his close ties to the settlement movement, initiated the policy shift shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, but then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opposed the move, according to Channel 13.

Friedman then reportedly raised the issue again when Pompeo replaced Tillerson in April 2018, this time getting a “green light” from the Trump administration to rewrite longstanding US policy on the issue of Israeli settlements.

In this March 6, 2018, photo, then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The US officials said the White House gave Pompeo and his team a “free hand” to draft the new policy, and a special team of State Department lawyers was formed to examine the issue and hold consultations with the legal adviser of Israel’s foreign ministry.

Last month, the team presented Pompeo with the a 40-page legal position outlining the new US policy. Pompeo approved it, delaying a planned announcement last week due to a two-day flareup in violence in and around the Gaza Strip.

Earlier this week, US officials told Israel they were set to announce the new policy, but asked whether they should hold off on making the announcement out of fears it would further exacerbate tensions with Gaza. Officials in Jerusalem said there was no such concern, and encouraged Washington to make the announcement, the report said.

According to the TV report, the White House informed Blue and White chief Benny Gantz about the announcement ahead of time, to avoid any appearance of interfering in Israeli politics. Gantz is currently working to cobble together a government, but with less than 24 hours left to his deadline, seems increasingly unlikely to do so.

A picture taken on November 19, 2019 shows a new housing construction site in the Israeli settlement of Elazar, near the Palestinian city of Bethlehem south of Jerusalem, in the West Bank. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

On Monday, Pompeo announced that after legal consultations, Washington concluded that the establishment of settlements in the West Bank was “not, per se, inconsistent with international law.”

In his announcement, Pompeo said the United States did not necessarily consider the settlements legal, but instead would defer to the judgement of Israeli courts.

The majority of settlers live in settlements that Israeli courts have judged legal.

While Palestinians and much of the international community condemned the change in policy, Netanyahu and other right-wing leaders welcomed Pompeo’s announcement, as did Gantz. Although it is largely symbolic, it fueled calls from settler supporters for increased construction or even the annexation of parts of the West Bank.

Netanyahu traveled to the West Bank on Tuesday to celebrate the US declaration, calling it a “huge achievement” that “fixed a historic wrong.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes his cabinet with United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman to inaugurate a new settlement named after US President Donald Trump in a gesture of appreciation for the US leader’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, June 16, 2019. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

“I think it is a great day for the State of Israel and an achievement that will remain for decades,” he said at a gathering of ecstatic supporters and settler leaders in Alon Shvut, a settlement outside of Jerusalem.

Settler leaders attending the event lauded the announcement.

“Settlement is not a crime and it is not an obstacle to peace. The actions of US ambassador Friedman reflect the reality on the ground and the legal status [of the settlements],” Efrat Regional Council chairman Oded Revivi told The Times of Israel.

The Efrat mayor told The Times of Israel that the US envoy was personally involved in initiating the policy change over the past few 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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