WASHINGTON • The Trump administration has declared that the United States does not consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank a violation of international law, reversing four decades of US policy and removing what has been an important barrier to annexation of Palestinian territory.
The announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday was the latest political gift from the Trump administration to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vowed in two elections this year to push for the annexation of the West Bank.
"The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements is not, per se, inconsistent with international law," Mr Pompeo told reporters at the State Department.
The United States has in the past described the settlements as illegitimate, and Palestinians have demanded the land for a future state, a goal that has been backed by the United Nations, European governments and US allies across the Middle East.
But President Donald Trump has been persistent in changing US policy on Israel and the Palestinian territories - moves aimed at bolstering political support for Mr Netanyahu, who has failed to form a government after two rounds of elections with razor-thin outcomes.
Monday's decision reversed a 1978 legal opinion by the State Department concluding that the settlements were inconsistent with international law.
Mr Pompeo said that ruling "hasn't advanced the cause of peace". "We've recognised the reality on the ground," he told reporters at the State Department.
Former president Ronald Reagan also told reporters shortly after taking office in 1981 that he did not believe the settlements were illegal but called new Israeli communities in Palestinian territory "unnecessarily provocative".
The settlements have been a major sticking point in peace negotiations that have failed to find a solution for generations. They are home to Israelis in territory that Palestinians have fought to control, and their presence makes negotiations for a two-state solution all the more difficult. The two-state solution has been a primary focus of past peace plans, calling for a separate state for Palestinians.
Within hours of the announcement, the State Department issued a travel alert to Americans planning to visit Jerusalem, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. "Those opposed to the Secretary of State's announcement may target US govt facilities, interests and citizens," the department said on Twitter.
In Washington, Mr Pompeo said the decision would provide greater space for the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate over the status of the settlements.
He said that the issue could be largely left to Israeli courts to decide, and that it had no bearing on legal conclusions regarding similar situations elsewhere in the world.
Instead, Mr Pompeo said, the issue must be solved by the Israelis and the Palestinians. "And arguments about who is right and wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace," he said.
NO LEGAL BREACH
The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.
U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO
A prime mover in the policy change was Mr David Friedman, the US Ambassador to Israel, who has pushed each of the Trump administration's major policy gifts to Mr Netanyahu. Mr Friedman signalled a shift in US policy towards settlements in occupied Palestinian territory in June, saying Israel had the right to annex some, but "unlikely all", of the West Bank.
Opponents of annexation warn that it puts Israel's status as a Jewish democracy at risk in two ways: If the West Bank's Palestinians are made Israeli citizens, the country's Arabs could quickly outnumber its Jews.
If they are not given full citizenship rights, Israel would become an apartheid state.