Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced that the US is softening its position on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, the latest in a series of Trump administration moves that weaken Palestinian claims to statehood.
Mr Pompeo repudiated a 1978 State Department legal opinion that held that civilian settlements in the occupied territories are “inconsistent with international law”.
The move angered Palestinians and immediately put the US at odds with other nations working to end the conflict.
The Trump administration views the opinion, the basis for long-standing US opposition to expanding the settlements, as a distraction and believes any legal questions about the issue should be addressed by Israeli courts, Mr Pompeo said.
“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law has not advanced the cause of peace,” Mr Pompeo said.
“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.”
US moves that have weakened Palestinian efforts to achieve statehood have included President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the movement of the US Embassy to that city and the closure of the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, condemned Mr Pompeo’s announcement and said settlements are illegal under international law.
“The US administration has lost its credibility to play any future role in the peace process,” he said.
The move could give a boost to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is fighting for his political survival after he was unable to form a coalition government following recent elections.
The 1978 legal opinion on settlements is known as the Hansell Memorandum and has been the basis for more than 40 years of carefully-worded US opposition to settlement construction that had varied in its tone and strength depending on the president’s position.
The international community overwhelmingly considers the settlements illegal. This is based in part on the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bars an occupying power from transferring parts of its own civilian population to occupied territory.
In the final days of the Obama administration, the US allowed the UN Security Council to pass a resolution declaring the settlements a “flagrant violation” of international law.
Mr Pompeo said the US would not take a position on the legality of specific settlements, that the new policy would not extend beyond the West Bank and that it would not create a precedent for other territorial disputes.
He also said the decision did not mean the administration was prejudging the status of the West Bank in any eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
Mr Netanyahu’s office released a statement saying the policy shift “rights a historical wrong” concerning settlements.
“This policy reflects an historical truth – that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria,” it said, using the Israeli terms for the West Bank.
Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mid-East war and quickly began settling the newly-conquered territory.
Some 700,000 Israeli settlers live in the two areas, which are both claimed by the Palestinians for their state.