Netanyahu thanks Trump for US policy shift on settlements

US President Donald Trump, left, welcomes visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Israeli PM tells US president that move to indicate settlements not illegal ‘corrected a historic injustice’ and advances peace because an agreement cannot be built ‘based on lies’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday thanked US President Donald Trump for Washington’s decision to repudiate a State Department legal opinion that said West Bank settlements were illegal.

In a phone call, Netanyahu told Trump that the move, announced by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier Monday, had “corrected a historic injustice.”

The premier said the change in tack represented a “simple truth” and likened it to the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and its moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem.

“We are not in a foreign land. This is our homeland for over 3,000 years. The reason that we are called ‘Jews’ is that we came from here, Judea. This does not prevent negotiations. On the contrary, it advances peace because it’s not possible to build true peace on based on lies,” Netanyahu said, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Pompeo in a press conference declared that the US was softening its position on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the latest in a series of Trump administration moves that weaken Palestinian claims to statehood.

The secretary of state 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, Pompeo said.

US moves that have weakened Palestinian efforts to achieve statehood have included Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the movement of the US embassy to that city, and the closure of the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington. Those moves have been widely, though not universally, welcomed in Israel.

Even though the decision is largely symbolic, it could give a boost to Netanyahu, who is fighting for his political survival after he was unable to form a coalition government following recent elections.

In addition, it could spell further trouble for the administration’s oft-promised peace plan, which is unlikely to gather much international support by endorsing a position contrary to the global consensus.

Trump himself has not yet made a statement on the changed policy.

Though Netanyahu and Trump were once close allies who touted their friendship to their respective bases, ties between the two have been seen as cooling in recent months as the Israeli premier has struggled to cling to power.

A Sunday report said that senior Israeli officials believe Trump is “very disappointed” with Netanyahu and frustrated that the ongoing political stalemate has significantly delayed the unveiling of Washington’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan.

In a separate statement earlier Monday, Netanyahu lauded Pompeo’s pronouncement that the US would defer to Israel’s courts to determine the legality of settlements.

“Israel’s legal system, which has proven itself fully capable of addressing legal questions related to the settlements, is the appropriate place for these matters to be adjudicated — not biased international forums that pay no attention to history or facts,” he said.

“Israel remains ready and willing to conduct peace negotiations with the Palestinians regarding all final status issues in an effort to achieve a durable peace, but will continue to reject all arguments regarding the illegality of the settlements,” he said.

A senior Israeli official told reporters on condition of anonymity that Netanyahu had been pushing for the policy change “for a number of months.”

The issue was advanced in cooperation with the National Security Council and the department for international law at the attorney general’s office, the official said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, condemned 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.

Yesha settlement umbrella council foreign envoy and Efrat Local Council chairman Oded Revivi told The Times of Israel that US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman was personally involved in initiating the policy change over the past several weeks and months. Friedman is known for his close ties to the settlement movement and served as the chairman of the American Friends of Beit El organization before becoming ambassador.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox girls on their way to school in a West Bank settlement, October 2009. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Right-wing and centrist lawmakers in Israel cheered the announcement on Monday.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, and Moshe Ya’alon, who represents the most right-wing flank of the party, both praised the announcement.

“The fate of the settlements and the residents of Judea and Samaria should be determined by agreements that meet security requirements and that can promote a peace that will serve both sides while reflecting the reality on the ground,” Gantz wrote in a tweet.

Both the right-wing Netanyahu and centrist Gantz say they support continued settlement building, and both have expressed support for annexation of the Jordan Valley, a corridor of land where the West Bank meets Jordan.

Netanyahu used the opportunity to once again attack Blue and White for allegedly working toward forming a minority government that would rely on outside support from the majority-Arab Joint List. The Likud chairman renewed his baseless claim that the Joint List lawmakers are supporters of terror in a video statement responding to the Pompeo announcement.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz speaks during a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in Gan Shmuel on November 10, 2019 (Flash90)

Several senior right-wing lawmakers, including New Right No. 2 Ayelet Shaked said that the policy shift should be used as a springboard off of which Israel should move to annex the West Bank.

“Now is the time to apply our sovereignty to these communities,” Shaked said in a statement. “The Jewish People have the legal & moral right to live in their ancient homeland.”

“There is no doubt around the rights of the nation of Israel in the Land of Israel,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in a statement.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana said the move “recognizes the Israeli nation’s connection to the Land of Israel and the deep connection between the two leaders, Netanyahu and Trump.”

Amir Peretz, head of the center-left Labor-Gesher faction said the US move would make it harder for Israel to reach a two-state deal with the Palestinians.

“Generations of Israelis have been paying the price of the conflict, which is a strategic problem for Israel, not America. The assertion that the settlements are legal will give legitimacy for millions of Palestinians to demand full citizenship and equal rights. It’s either two states or one that is non-Zionist and non-Jewish. There is no third option,” he said.

Chairman of the Labor-Gesher party Amir Peretz speaks at a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, October 28, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Elsewhere on the left side of the political spectrum, responses were also less positive.

Democratic Camp chairman Nitzan Horowitz called the US announcement “wrong and harmful” asserting that settlements are a “central obstacle to peace.”

“They are illegal according to any definition of international law and harm Israeli interests as well as the Palestinians, of course. The United States should have called for a cessation of construction in the settlements and an immediate renewal of the peace process. There is no other solution to the conflict except for the two-state solution,” Horowitz said in a statement.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties in the Knesset, wrote on Twitter that the US change in policy toward West Bank settlements will not “change the fact that the settlements were built on occupied land upon which an independent Palestinian state will be founded alongside Israel.”

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