U.S. Makes Dramatic Policy Change on Israeli Presence in Yehuda and Shomron

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke/Pool)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Monday that the U.S. is softening its position on the Israeli presence in Yehuda and Shomron, the latest in a series of Trump administration moves that weaken Palestinian claims to statehood.

Pompeo repudiated a 1978 State Department legal opinion that held that civilian communities in the region are “inconsistent with international law.” The move will likely anger Palestinians and put the U.S. at odds with other nations working to end the conflict.

The Trump administration views the opinion, the basis for long-standing U.S. opposition to expanding the communities, as a distraction and believes any legal questions about the issue should be addressed by Israeli courts.

“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law has not advanced the cause of peace,” Pompeo said. “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.”

In Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu‏‏ hailed the announcement as “an important policy that rights a historical wrong… clearly reject[ing] the false claim that Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria are inherently illegal under international law.

“The Trump Administration policy is also correct in stating that those who have categorically denied any legal basis for the settlements not only deny truth, history and the reality on the ground, they also set back the cause of peace, which can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the parties.

Even though the decision is largely symbolic, it could also give a boost to 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 by endorsing a position contrary to the global consensus.

The 1978 legal opinion quoted above is known as the Hansell Memorandum. It had been the basis for more than 40 years of carefully worded U.S. opposition to construction in the area that had varied in its tone and strength depending on the president’s position.

The international community overwhelmingly considers the settlements illegal. This is based in part on the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bars an occupying power from transferring parts of its own civilian population to occupied territory.

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