US secretary: Settlement expansion weakens Israel's security

US revives policy deeming settlements illegal, pans Israel’s plan for 3,000 new homes

Blinken says settlements ‘inconsistent with international law,’ reversing stance of predecessor Pompeo, after Smotrich announced building plans in response to deadly terror shooting

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

A picture taken in the village of Turmus Ayya near Ramallah city shows the nearby Israeli Shilo settlement in the background, in the West Bank on February 18, 2024. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)
A picture taken in the village of Turmus Ayya near Ramallah city shows the nearby Israeli Shilo settlement in the background, in the West Bank on February 18, 2024. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

The Biden administration on Friday restored historic US policy deeming settlements inconsistent with international law, rejecting a stance implemented by the former administration, hours after Israel announced a plan to advance the construction of thousands of new settlement homes in response to a terror shooting in the West Bank.

“We’ve seen the reports and I have to say we’re disappointed in the announcement,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in response to a question on the matter during a press conference in Argentina.

“It’s been long-standing US policy under Republican and Democratic administrations alike that new settlements are counterproductive to reaching an enduring peace.”

“They’re also inconsistent with international law,” he continued, effectively revoking what became known as the “Pompeo doctrine,” which deemed settlements “not per se inconsistent with international law.”

The 2019 policy implemented by Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo rejected views held for decades by administrations from both parties that maintained varying degrees of adversarial relationships with West Bank settlements. The Pompeo policy — for the first time — saw the US take a neutral, if not supportive, view of Israel’s presence beyond the Green Line.

Blinken’s remarks restored the validity of a 1978 State Department memo that viewed settlements as illegal, a US official told The Times of Israel, adding that a more formal step wasn’t required because Pompeo’s policy was merely announced in a statement akin to the one made Friday by his successor. The new Biden policy is also consistent with that of former president Barack Obama, who allowed a UN Security Council resolution to pass in 2016 that also deemed settlements to be illegal under international law.

“Our administration maintains firm opposition to settlement expansion and in our judgment, this only weakens — doesn’t strengthen — Israel’s security,” Blinken added.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference after meeting with Argentine President Javier Milei at Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires on February 23, 2024. (Juan Mabromata/AFP)

Elaborating on the decision during his own press conference, White House National Security Adviser John Kirby said, “We are simply reaffirming the fundamental conclusion that these settlements are inconsistent with international law… this is a position that has been consistent over a range of Republican and Democratic administrations.”

“If there’s an administration that is being inconsistent, it was the previous one,” Kirby said of the Trump administration.

The criticism was echoed by the UK’s Ambassador to Israel Simon Walters, who tweeted, “Settlements are illegal under international law and make it harder still to progress towards a solution of this conflict.”

Despite pressure from progressive pro-Israel organizations, the Biden administration had held off for over three years in revoking the Pompeo doctrine, as it avoided moves seen as overly confrontational with Jerusalem.

But the swift nature in which the US moved with Friday’s announcement highlighted Washington’s ever-shrinking patience with Israel’s policy in the West Bank, as the administration continues to come under fire from progressives at home and many allies abroad over its broad support for Israel in the war against Hamas.

Anger has bubbled over the past year, even as Washington held off on pulling the trigger on reversing the largely symbolic Pompeo doctrine.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (L) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (2nd L) during a visit to the Psagot Winery in the West Bank, on November 19, 2020. (State Department/Twitter)

Last year’s approval of a record number of settlement homes and the expansion of Israel’s footprint in the West Bank led the US to summon Jerusalem’s ambassador in Washington for the first time in over a decade. Unchecked settler violence recently sparked first-of-their-kind sanctions against Israeli extremists, with additional such penalties slated to be announced in the coming weeks and months, US officials told The Times of Israel earlier this week.

One senior US official said on Tuesday — two days before the Israeli settlement announcement — that the Pompeo doctrine could be revoked if Israel took a significant step to expand its footprint in the West Bank. Notably, Israel had avoided convening the High Planning Subcommittee since the war with Hamas broke out. It last met in June 2023, while still managing to break a record in just six months for most homes advanced in a year — 12,349.

That lull will end in the coming days after Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich announced late Thursday that Israel will advance plans for the construction of more than 3,000 settlement homes in response to the deadly shooting attack near the Ma’ale Adumim settlement.

Smotrich said in a statement that the decision to advance plans for 2,350 new housing units in Ma’ale Adumim, 300 in Keidar and 694 in Efrat was made during a meeting he held with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer. It was the latest demonstration of the influence that the far-right minister holds in Netanyahu’s government, as the premier continues to rely on the support of his Orthodox coalition partners to remain in power.

Israeli security and rescue forces at the scene of a terror shooting attack at a checkpoint near Ma’ale Adumim in the West Bank, February 22, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“May every terrorist planning to harm us know that lifting a finger against Israeli citizens will be met with a death blow and destruction in addition to the deepening of our eternal grip on the entire Land of Israel,” Smotrich said, calling the decision “an appropriate Zionist response.”

Earlier Thursday, three Palestinian gunmen opened fire near a checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement city of Ma’ale Adumim, killing an Israeli man and wounding 11 others.

In what may have been an attempt to soften the response from Washington, the three settlements that the top Israeli ministers earmarked for construction — Ma’ale Adumim, Efrat and Kedar — are all located west of the West Bank security barrier, in areas perceived to enjoy more consensus Israeli support, as opposed to more isolated settlements dozens of kilometers east of the Green Line.

This apparently was not enough to convince the Biden administration to hold off on the step it took Friday.

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