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Why Has the United States Said Israeli Settlements Are No Longer Illegal?

In a bombshell announcement, the United States has said that Israeli settlements are no longer inconsistent with International law. What are the likely consequences?

Published on November 18, 2019

What did Pompeo say?

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Monday, November 18, 2019, that the United States will no longer view Israeli settlements on the West Bank (and presumably East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights) as inconsistent with international law.

Pompeo referred specifically to the fact that President Donald Trump’s administration was reversing former president Barack Obama’s approach to the issue, tethering its position to the Reagan administration’s formulation in 1981 that settlements were “not illegal.” But Pompeo failed to point out that Reagan’s rhetoric on settlements was very tough, calling for a settlements freeze.

Why now?

The reasons for the precise timing of this statement are unclear. Domestic politics are always at top of Trump’s agenda. And legalizing Israeli settlements will play well with his pro-Israeli constituencies, especially evangelicals. Senior Trump administration officials, particularly U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, a longtime advocate of settlements and of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have been pushing for a change in policy since the beginning of Trump’s presidency. And there is little doubt that an embattled Netanyahu, who is fighting for his political survival, will view this move as a potential lifeline. That said, it’s difficult to see precisely how this will redeem him—given that he is likely to face indictment on charges ranging from bribery to fraud.  

What Does It Mean?  

Some might dismiss this latest U.S. move as symbolic, and without many practical implications. After all, the Trump administration has been actively acquiescing to Israeli settlement activity, if not encouraging it. And since the onset of Arab-Israeli negotiations in the 1990s, with the rare exception, previous U.S. administrations have studiously avoided the legal issue and confined themselves to rhetorical objections.

Nonetheless, the decision must be seen within the context of Trump’s seeming determination to reframe U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First, he downgraded the importance of statehood and the Palestinian refugee issue. Then he declared Jerusalem the capital of the state of Israel, period—with little regard for the deep Palestinian connection to, and relationship with, the city. Now, he has greenlighted and validated the one behavior on the part of Israel—settlement activity—that has most undermined the chances of a political settlement.  

Despite Pompeo’s efforts to suggest that the change won’t prejudge the ultimate status of the West Bank, it will. The U.S. policy change will also further alienate Palestinians, whose buy-in Israelis will need if any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ever to be possible. What’s more, it could spark violence. Indeed, the Department of State issued a travel warning after Pompeo’s announcement cautioning U.S. citizens about that possibility.