US says it no longer considers Israeli settlements as illegal

Updated 19 Nov 2019


US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference at the US Department of State on November 18 in Washington, DC. — AFP
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference at the US Department of State on November 18 in Washington, DC. — AFP

WASHINGTON: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo disclosed on Monday that the United States had decided to soften its position on Israeli settlements in occupied West Bank, meaning that Washington no longer considers the settlements as illegal.

Pompeo said the US planned to repudiate a 1978 State Department legal opinion which held that civilian settlements in the occupied territories were inconsistent with international law.

The decision, expected to be announced on Tuesday, will likely anger Palestinians and 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, according to a draft of Pompeo’s remarks on the policy.

Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law has not advanced the cause of peace, Pompeo says in the draft. 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.

The US administration moves that have weakened Palestinian efforts to achieve statehood have included President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the movement of the US embassy to that city and the closure of Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List of Arab parties in Israel’s Knesset, wrote on Twitter that the change in policy won’t change the fact that the “settlements were built on occupied land upon which an independent Palestinian state will be founded alongside Israel”.

Even though the decision is largely symbolic, it could also give a boost to Israeli 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.

The Netanyahu government was dealt a blow on settlements just last week when the European Court of Justice ruled products made in Israeli settlements must be labelled as such.

Israeli Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich, a West Bank settler and head of a pro-settler party, wrote on Twitter that the anticipated announcement was “an appropriate response to the hypocritical decision by the European court last week”.

The 1978 legal opinion on settlements is known as the Hansell Memorandum. It had been the basis for more than 40 years of carefully worded US opposition to settlement construction.

Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2019