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Pompeo says US backing of Israeli settlements will 'advance peace'

US Secretary of State 'disavows' Carter-era memo that declared settlements illegal, according to international law
A Palestinian demonstrator stands near the Jewish settlement of Qadomem during a protest against Jewish settlements in Kofr Qadom, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank (Reuters)

The United States' backing of Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank will advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo affirmed on Wednesday.

Speaking by video link at a Jerusalem policy forum dubbed “The Pompeo Doctrine”, Pompeo said in a pre-recorded statement that the administration of US President Donald Trump had returned to a “balanced and sober” approach to Middle East peace by changing its position. 

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“It’s important that we speak the truth when the facts lead us to it, and that's what we've done," Pompeo said. "And we are recognising that these settlements don’t inherently violate international law."

He went on to say that the US was "disavowing the deeply flawed" 1978 memorandum under President Jimmy Carter, written by then-State Department legal adviser Herbert Hansell, that deemed all Israeli settlements beyond the 1949 armistice lines as illegal - in step with international law regarding the presence of civilian settlements in occupied territories.

"We're returning to a balanced and sober, [Ronald] Reagan-era approach, and in doing so we're advancing the cause of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians," he said.

In a reversal of four decades of US policy, Pompeo in November announced that the United States no longer viewed Israel’s settlements on West Bank land it captured in the 1967 Middle East war as “inconsistent with international law”, essentially throwing out the 41-year-old legal opinion by Hansell which had long been the basis of US policy towards Israeli settlements.

Pompeo's move angered Palestinian leaders, who have long argued that settlements impede peace efforts and make the creation of a future Palestinian state all but impossible - but the shift has delighted Israel.

'Balanced and sober'

The US official's statement on Wednesday provided important US support to Israel amid a potential International Criminal Court (ICC) inquiry.

In December, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said she would launch a full investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the besieged Gaza Strip as soon as the Hague-based body’s jurisdiction had been established.

The prosecutor’s announcement opened the possibility of charges being filed against both Israelis and Palestinians - but the decision has been loudly denounced by Israeli officials.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that the Trump administration’s backing was a “proper answer to the decision by the ICC in the Hague to investigate Israel’s actions in Judea and Samaria” - using the Israeli term to refer to the West Bank.

“The ‘Pompeo doctrine’ regarding the status of the settlements simply states that we are not foreigners in our homeland,” Netanyahu told the conference, hosted by the Kohelet Policy Forum, a Jerusalem think tank.

The conference sought to build upon the new US stance by laying out legal arguments in defence of Israel’s settlements and debating critics’ objections.

Around 430,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank segregated from the 3 million Palestinians living in the territory.

"This will not legalise the occupation and the Israeli settlements, but rather will end the American role in any peace process,” Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator, told MEE.

“We will stand tall on the tenets of international law, shoulder to shoulder with all nations on earth because the Trump administration’s policy here is not only threatening the prospect for Israeli-Palestinian peace, it is absolutely killing it,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Middle East Eye in November.

Erekat added that US policy was pushing “the region further toward bloodshed and violence”.

The Palestinian Authority has boycotted the Trump administration and its attempt to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including through its long-delayed "deal of the century", accusing Washington of pro-Israel bias since it recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and later moved its embassy there.