Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reversed decades of U.S. foreign policy and declared that Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories will no longer be considered illegal.
The new American position on the settlements puts it at odds with the overwhelming majority of states around the world, including most of the U.S. allies.
Arguing that “arguments about who is right and who is wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace,” Pompeo claimed that the new move would contribute to the peace process and might lead to a political solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Rebukes swiftly followed the Trump administration’s announcement. Federica Mogherini, currently serving as the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, responded within an hour stating that the EU’s position remains the same: “All settlement activity is illegal under international law and it erodes the viability of the two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace,” Jordanian foreign minister Ayman Safadi tweeted that his country’s condemnation of the settlement building remained “unwavering.”
While previous administrations have refrained from calling the settlements “illegal,” they have generally opposed them and at times referred to them as “illegitimate” as well as an “obstacle to peace.”
The UN Security Council has, as recently as December 2016, condemned the settlements as illegal. On that occasion the U.S. abstained resulting in the UN resolution passing 14-0. The international consensus is rooted in Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
The White House’s declaration follows a series of moves that further benefit Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Back in December 2017, Trump recognized Jerusalem — which is itself disputed due to the occupation of East Jerusalem — as the capital of Israel. In March of this year, the U.S. announced that it was recognizing the Golan Heights, internationally considered Syrian territory, as a part of Israel. In return, Netanyahu unveiled a new yet unpopulated settlement in the Golan named “Trump Heights.”
The new move, though radical, is not surprising considering that the administration already consists of supporters of the Jewish settlements. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is tasked with producing the so-called “Deal of the Century,” has himself funded West Bank settlements. Likewise, current U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman has also fundraised for them.
The move is sure to be approved by Trump’s evangelical base, who have championed the population of the occupied territories by Jewish settlers. On the other hand, it will likely contribute to the growing partisanship that has come to increasingly define Israel in American politics. With the Trump administration aligning ever more with Netanyahu and the Israeli right, the Democratic Party is set to experience further schisms between the establishment wing — represented by figures like Senator Chuck Schumer — and the insurgent and progressive wing, led by figures like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
While many around the globe, and in particular in the Arab world, have long doubted the United States’ supposed impartiality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the recent move simply reaffirms the long-held view that the U.S. is actively on Israel’s side. This has even resulted in President Mahmoud Abbas calling for Russia to host future peace talks between himself and Netanyahu.