Donald Trump’s US administration has declared that the White House no longer sees Jewish settlements in the West Bank as “illegal” under international law.
The announcement was made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday but the European Union said its position remained unchanged within an hour of Pompeo’s statement.
“After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate, the United States has concluded that the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law,” said Pompeo.
“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law hasn’t worked. It hasn’t advanced the cause of peace.”
He added: “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.”
The policy U-turn repudiates one of Barack Obama’s last presidential acts in not vetoing United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which called the settlements a “flagrant violation” of international law with “no legal validity”.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Pompeo’s statement, saying it “rights a historical wrong,” but Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he “stands by” Resolution 2334, that “settlements in the West Bank are a flagrant violation of international law. They are an obstacle to peace”.
While some British Jewish groups reacted with disappointment, saying the change of policy would not change the reality on the ground, others “welcomed” the change.
“We view [Pompeo’s statement] as fair, true and just,” said Zionist Federation chair Paul Charney. “Genuine attempts to define any justified Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria have all been ignored by the international community for far too long.”
He added that the U-turn was “recognition that this baseless allegation of illegality has done absolutely nothing to further peace, but rather drive the prospects of peace further away”.
However New Israel Fund UK chief executive Adam Ognall the change “does not change the stark reality of the occupation or take us closer to the prospect of a resolution,” adding: “In this environment we recommit our support for Israelis standing up for human rights and the prospect of peace.”
A spokeswoman for British Zionist organisation Yachad, which is currently leading a fact-finding trip to Israel and the West Bank, reiterated that point.
“This week we have been learning about the reality of occupation and the impact of settlements on both Palestinians and Israelis,” she said.
“No declaration by the Trump administration will change the fact that settlement expansion weakens Israel’s security by making peace harder to achieve. Settlements are built on occupied Palestinian territory. They violate international law and pose a serious obstacle to peace.”
Analysts said Pompeo’s policy change could be designed to shore up his support among Republicans ahead of his expected run for a Senate seat.
Commentators also said it represents another well-timed intervention from Trump for Netanyahu, whose political star is now waning in the face of a pending corruption trial and the sight of his domestic rival negotiating a coalition.
In recent months Trump has moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite both Israelis and Palestinians claiming the city as their capital, and recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, land seized from Syria in war.
There are now more than 500,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank, but while Netanyahu said Pompeo’s announcement recognised “the reality on the ground,” senior Palestinians were left said it rode roughshod over international law.
Former Palestinian Prime Minister Saeb Erekat said: “Once again, with this announcement, the Trump administration is demonstrating the extent to which it’s threatening the international system with its unceasing attempts to replace international law with the ‘law of the jungle’.”