Biden administration restores Trump-rescinded policy on illegitimacy of Israeli settlements

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration on Friday reinstated a U.S. legal finding from nearly 50 years ago that Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are “unlawful” under international law.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US believes the settlements violate Israel’s obligations a decision by his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, in the Biden administration’s latest shift away from former President Donald Trump’s pro-Israel policies.

Blinken’s comments came in response to a reporter’s question about an announcement to that effect Israel would build more than 3,300 new homes in the West Bank settlements in response to a fatal Palestinian shooting.

It was not clear why Blinken chose this moment, more than three years into his term, to reverse Pompeo’s decision. But it came at a time rising US-Israeli tensions over the war in Gaza, with the latest settlement announcement only adding to the tension. It also came as the United Nations’ highest court, the International Court of Justice, held hearings on the legality of Israel’s occupation.

Biden administration officials have not viewed Blinken’s comments as a reversal — but only because they claim Pompeo’s determination was never formally announced. Lawyers for the Biden administration concluded that Pompeo’s determination was just his opinion and not legally binding, according to two administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

But whether formally announced or not, Pompeo’s announcement in November 2019 was widely accepted as US policy and was not publicly rejected until Blinken spoke on Friday.

Speaking in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires, Blinken said the US was “disappointed” to learn of the new settlement plan announced by Israel’s far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich after three Palestinian gunmen opened fire on cars near the Maale Adumim settlement. killing one Israeli and wounding five.

Blinken condemned the attack but said the US opposes settlement expansion and made clear that Washington would again adhere to the Carter administration-era legal finding that determined settlements did not comply with international law.

“It has long been U.S. policy under both Republican and Democratic administrations that new settlements are counterproductive to achieving lasting peace,” he said at his news conference with Argentine Foreign Minister Diana Mondino.

“They are also contrary to international law. Our administration remains firmly opposed to settlement expansion and, in our view, this only weakens Israel’s security, not strengthens it,” Blinken said.

For decades, U.S. settlement policy was guided by the 1978 determination known as the “Hansell Memorandum,” which was written by then-State Department Legal Advisor Herbert Hansell. Hansell’s findings did not say that settlements were ‘illegal’, but rather ‘illegitimate’. Nevertheless, this memorandum shaped American policy in this area for decades.

Pompeo rejected that policy in November 2019. The Biden administration had long considered reimplementing it as it sought to adjust its Middle East strategy. These deliberations had gathered pace as Israel’s response to the October 7 Hamas attacks drew increasing international criticism.

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