In a televised appearance at the US state department, Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, said: “The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.”
The building of Jewish settlements on territory historically occupied by the Palestinians has been repeatedly condemned by the international community, and is the subject of several resolutions by the United Nations.
As recently as 2016, the UN security council passed resolution 2334, which denounced the establishment of settlements in Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, as having “no legal validity” and constituting “a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the vision of two states living side-by-side in peace and security, within internationally recognised borders”.
Mr Pompeo suggested the position of the US towards the West Bank, which Israel captured during a 1967 war, had changed over the years, even if Washington’s official policy had not altered for 40 years.
He said while Democratic president Jimmy Carter in 1978 found they were not consistent with international law, Republican Ronald Reagan in 1981 said he did not view them as inherently illegal.
Hagit Ofran, from Peace Now, an Israeli settlement watchdog, told The Independent: “[Pompeo] might as well say that the day is night but it will not change the fact that settlements are a violation of the international law. But even more important than their legal status, settlements are bad for Israel, bad for the chances for peace and bad for the stability of the region.
“America is turning its back on the two states solution, and is paving the way for the Israeli government to move forward with annexation plans and making the one-state reality more permanent.”
A spokesperson for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said the move by Washington “contradicts totally with international law”.
Dror Etkes, an Israeli researcher who has spent two decades monitoring the Israeli settlement enterprise and heads up watchdog Kerem Navot, said: “No wonder that the secretary of state who denies climate change and opposed affordable healthcare and voted against public funding for abortions, supports that the Israeli settlement/apartheid in the West Bank.”
The move by Washington counts as the latest major policy shift in regard to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories by the Trump administration.
In late 2017, Mr Trump announced the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and ordered that the US embassy more there from Tel Aviv.
In March, Mr Trump formally recognised Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights in a boost for Mr Netanyahu that prompted a sharp response from Syria, which once held the strategically important piece of land.
Mr Trump and Mr Netanyahu have established a far friendlier and unquestioning relationship than the Israeli leader did with Barack Obama.
At the invitation of Republicans, Mr Netanyahu in March 2015 spoke to both houses of the US congress, where he attacked Mr Obama’s proposal to sign a multiparty agreement with Iran. Once he came to office, Mr Trump removed the US from the deal.
Experts say Mr Trump’s motivation is partly a desire to satisfy evangelical Christians in the US, on whose support he relies. Some of those who follow so-called “End Time” predictions, believe Jesus Christ will appear on earth once Jewish people control the city of Jerusalem.
Jewish settlement construction in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem has spiked since President Trump took office in 2017, according to official data obtained by the Associated Press.
Mr Netanyahu’s office said in a statement: “Today, the United States adopted an important policy that rights a historical wrong when the Trump administration clearly rejected the false claim that Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria are inherently illegal under international law.
“This policy reflects an historical truth – that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria. In fact, we are called Jews because we are the people of Judea.”
It remains to be seen if Mr Trump’s move will help Mr Netanyahu, as he struggles to stay in power. Israeli politics is deadlocked after two inconclusive elections this year.
Former military chief Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party emerged neck and neck with Mr Netanyahu following a September vote, and both leaders have struggled to put together a ruling coalition.
Soon, after Mr Pompeo made his statement, the US embassy in Jerusalem on Monday warned Americans about travelling in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. “The US embassy advises US citizens in or considering travel to or through Jerusalem, the West Bank, or Gaza to maintain a high level of vigilance and take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness in light of the current environment,” it said in a statement.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies