(CNSNews.com) – In another major reversal of the Obama administration’s policies on the Mideast dispute, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday the U.S. will no longer view the existence of Israeli communities (“settlements”) in disputed territory as inherently illegal under international law, unleashing a wave of reaction, both positive and negative.
“This policy reflects an historical truth – that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria,” said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “In fact, we are called Jews because we are the people of Judea.”
Judea and Samaria are the historical and biblical names for the area known by the international community as the West Bank, which Palestinians want, along with Gaza, as an independent state. Some 400,000 Israelis live in towns and villages in the West Bank, and about 200,000 more in eastern parts of Jerusalem, also claimed by the Palestinians.
The Israeli politician currently trying to form a coalition to succeed Netanyahu’s government, Benny Gantz, also welcomed the U.S. announcement. Essentially echoing Pompeo’s words, Gantz said the future of those Israeli settlements “should be determined by agreements that meet security requirements and promote peace.”
Palestinian leaders slammed the announcement, with PLO secretary general Saeb Erekat accusing the Trump administration of trying to replace international law with the “law of the jungle.”
Erekat called on the international community to “take all necessary measures to respond and deter this irresponsible U.S. behavior, which poses a threat to global stability, security, and peace.”
The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem advised U.S. citizens in the area to increase security awareness, warning that individuals and groups opposed to Pompeo’s announcement “may target U.S. government facilities, U.S. private interests, and U.S. citizens.”
Weighing in on Twitter, 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders directly contradicted Pompeo.
“Israeli settlements in occupied territory are illegal,” he tweeted. “This is clear from international law and multiple United Nations resolutions. Once again, Mr. Trump is isolating the United States and undermining diplomacy by pandering to his extremist base.”
Speaking at the State Department, Pompeo characterized the legal opinion as a return to the position held by President Ronald Reagan, who in 1981 rejected the Carter administration’s assessment three years earlier “that Israel’s establishment of civilian settlements was inconsistent with international law.”
Reagan, Pompeo said, “disagreed with that conclusion, and stated that he didn’t believe the settlements were inherently illegal.”
Over the years since Reagan, he continued, “subsequent administrations recognized that unrestrained settlement activity could be an obstacle to peace, but they wisely and prudently recognized that dwelling on legal positions didn’t advance peace.”
“However, in December 2016, at the very end of the previous administration, Secretary [of State John] Kerry changed decades of this careful, bipartisan approach by publicly re-affirming the supposed illegality of settlements.”
“After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate, this administration agrees with President Reagan,” Pompeo said. “The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.”
In a Dec. 2016 speech, Kerry defended the administration’s decision days earlier to abstain, rather than veto, a controversial Security Council resolution that condemned Israeli presence in disputed territories, including eastern Jerusalem, and declared those areas to be “Palestinian territory.”
Kerry spoke at length about settlements, recalled the Carter administration’s 1978 conclusion that “the Israeli government’s program of establishing civilian settlements in the occupied territory is inconsistent with international law,” and added that the Obama administration “see[s] no change since then to affect that fundamental conclusion.”
‘International law does not compel a particular outcome’
In his remarks on Monday, Pompeo explained that the administration was not expressing a view on the legal status of any individual settlement – that was up to the Israeli legal system, which he said was empowered to consider challenges to specific settlement activity, and has made rulings for and against certain activity.
The U.S. was also not prejudging the ultimate status of the West Bank, which was for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate, he said.
“International law does not compel a particular outcome nor create any legal obstacle to a negotiated resolution,” Pompeo stressed.
He also said the decision was “based on the unique facts, history and circumstances” of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and was not applicable to situations elsewhere in the world.
Pompeo argued that the policy of calling settlements inconsistent with international law had not advanced the cause of peace.
“The hard truth is, there will never be a judicial resolution to the conflict, and arguments about who is right and wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace. This is a complex political problem that can only be solved by negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
He said the U.S. encouraged both sides to work towards resolving the status of the settlements in any final status negotiation, and to find a solution that protects the security and welfare of Palestinians and Israelis alike.
A reporter asked Pompeo whether he worried the decision would increase U.S. isolation at the United Nations “because pretty much everyone else has held the position that, if not illegal, [settlements] are at least inconsistent with international law.”
“I must say, sadly, there hasn’t been much support for Israel in the years leading up to this,” he replied. “It’s hard to imagine more isolation, unfortunately, at the U.N. as a result of this decision.”
On Friday, a U.N. General Assembly committee passed, mostly by overwhelming majorities, eight resolutions condemning or singling out Israel. The U.S. and Israel alone voted against all eight, with Canada, Australia and Brazil joining in some cases. The General Assembly plenary is expected to endorse them by similar vote counts in December.