Mike Pompeo has said the US is softening its position on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank – the latest move from the Trump administration to anger Palestinians.
The US Secretary of State rebutted a 1978 State Department legal opinion that held that civilian settlements in the occupied territories are “inconsistent with international law”.
The move weakens Palestinian claims to statehood and puts the US at odds with other nations working to end the conflict.
However the latest US backing of Israel came as a victory for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is struggling to remain in power after two inconclusive elections this year.
Mr Pompeo said US statements regarding the settlements – which Israel captured during a 1967 war – had been inconsistent.
He said Democrat President Jimmy Carter found they were not consistent in 1978, and that Republican President Ronald Reagan said he did not view them as inherently illegal in 1981.
Mr Pompeo said that legal questions about the issue should be addressed by Israeli courts.
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He added: “Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law has not advanced the cause of peace.
“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.”
His announcement was praised by Mr Netanyahu but condemned by Palestinian officials.
The US also issued a warning to Americans in the region to exercise greater vigilance because those opposing the move “may target US government facilities, US private interests and US citizens”.
Mr Netanyahu said the US decision “rights a historical wrong” and called on other countries to take a similar stance.
A statement from Mr Netanyahu’s office said: “Israel is deeply grateful to President Trump, Secretary Pompeo and the entire US administration for their steadfast position supporting truth and justice, and calls upon all responsible countries who hope to advance peace to adopt a similar position.”
Meanwhile Palestinians voiced outrage.
A spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas condemned Mr Pompeo’s announcement, claiming settlements are illegal under international law.
“The US administration has lost its credibility to play any future role in the peace process,” spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Trump administration was threatening “to replace international law with the ‘law of the jungle'”.
Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, said the US policy change would have “dangerous consequences” for the prospects of reviving peace talks. He called settlements “a blatant violation of international law and United Nations Security Council resolutions.”
Past Trump administration pro-Israeli moves include President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as well as the movement of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and the closure of the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington.
Mr Pompeo said the move was not intended to prejudge the status of the West Bank, which the Palestinians hope will become part of an eventual Palestinian state in a wider resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“This is for the Israelis and the Palestinians to negotiate,” he said, adding that the US decision was not meant “to compel a particular outcome nor create any legal obstacle to a negotiated resolution”.
Mr Pompeo’s announcement is likely to please evangelical Christians – an important part of Mr Trump’s political base – which he is relying on to help him win re-election in 2020.