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State Department Loosens U.S. Policy On Israeli Settlements In West Bank

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks Monday during a news conference at the State Department, where he announced the administration will rescind a 1978 department legal opinion that viewed settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank as inconsistent with international law.
Andrew Harnik

Updated at 9:02 p.m. ET

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday the Trump administration's latest pro-Israel change in U.S. policy, saying the State Department is rescinding a 1978 department legal opinion that viewed settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank as inconsistent with international law.

That legal opinion, known as the Hansell Memorandum and crafted during the Carter administration, saidthat "civilian settlements in those territories is inconsistent with international law."

Pompeo said that over the years U.S. presidents have viewed the opinion different ways but that the Trump administration does not view the settlements as inconsistent with international law and leaves the issue of individual settlements up to Israeli courts.

"Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law has not advanced the cause of peace," Pompeo told reporters at the State Department. "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."

Most countries and the United Nations Security Council consider settlements a violation of international law. Settlements — home now to hundreds of thousands of Israelis — are built on land Israel captured in 1967 and where Palestinians have hoped to establish an independent state. A series of U.S. administrations have allowed settlement construction to continue but frequently criticized them publicly.

The move comes after the administration endorsed Israel's claim to Jerusalem as its capital and sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights.

A statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the Trump administration for backing the Jewish people's historic ties to the West Bank, which the Israeli government calls by the Biblical name Judea and Samaria. It said, "This policy reflects an historical truth - that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria."

A Palestinian leader said Pompeo's announcement undermined the Trump administration's credibility in arranging peace talks.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat issued a statement saying: "Once again, with this announcement, the Trump administration is demonstrating the extent to which it's threating the international system with its unceasing attempts to replace international law with the 'law of the jungle.' "

The Trump administration "cannot and will not re-write international law," said H.E. Dr. Raid Malki, Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister. He said the Trump administration showed "disregard and contempt to the rules-based international system and multilateralism, whose effects go beyond the Question of Palestine."

In his remarks, Pompeo denied the policy change was timed to benefit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who favors annexation of the West Bank. Netanyahu is also locked in a political battle with his rival, Benny Gantz, who is trying to cobble together a majority in Israel's Parliament by Wednesday.

"The timing of this was not tied to anything that had to do with domestic politics anywhere," said Pompeo.

Gantz himself issued a statement saying the question of the settlements "should be determined by agreements that meet security requirements and that can promote peace."

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Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.