Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Monday that the U.S. would no longer consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be in violation of international law.
The move reversed 41 years of U.S. policy regarding the issue based on a 1978 legal opinion from the State Department that concluded the settlements were “inconsistent with international law.” In 1981 the policy was reviewed, but not overturned, by then-president Ronald Reagan, who said the settlements were not illegal.
“After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate, this administration agrees with President Reagan: the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law,” Pompeo said at a press conference.
The Secretary of State stressed that the U.S. is “expressing no view on the legal status of any individual settlement” or “addressing or prejudging the ultimate status of the West Bank.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government officials immediately welcomed the move. A statement from Netanyahu’s office said the announcement “rights a historic wrong,” while the Prime Minister’s chief political rival Benny Gantz said he “praises the American government on the important statement, once again pointing to its firm adherence to Israel and its commitment to security and the future of the entire Middle East.”
In response, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Saeb Erekat in a statement accused the Trump administration of attempting to “replace international law with the ‘law of the jungle.’”
The Trump administration has already advanced several decisions regarding Israel that have changed longstanding U.S. policy. In 2017 the administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city, and moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem the following year.
In March of this year, Trump recognized the Golan Heights in Israel’s north as belonging to Israel, which annexed the area in 1981 after fighting successive wars with Syria.
Israel is currently in political deadlock, with neither right nor left-wing factions able to form a government after two national elections this year. It remains unclear whether Pompeo’s announcement will have an effect on the deadlock, although it may embolden Netanyahu and Israel’s political right.