Trump Ignores International Law, Hands Israel Another Gift

Reversing decades of policy, the Trump Administration reversed decades of policy on settlements in disputed territory.

Yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a deviation from American policy in the Middle East that breaks with roughly fifty years of a consistent policy across Republican and Democratic Administrations, and which threatens to undermine even further any chances of a Middle East peace deal:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that the Trump administration had determined that Israel’s West Bank settlements do not violate international law, a decision he said had “increased the likelihood” of a Middle East peace settlement.

Pompeo said the Trump administration, as it did with recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and Israel’s sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights, had simply “recognized the reality on the ground.”

The move upends more than 40 years of U.S. policy that has declared Israeli expansion into territories occupied since the 1967 war a major obstacle to settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In response to a question, Pompeo denied that the announcement was connected to turmoil in Israel in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has supported the Israeli annexation of West Bank territory, is fighting for his political life.

“The timing of this was not tied to anything that had to do with domestic politics anywhere,” he said. “We conducted our review, and this was the appropriate time to bring it forward.”

More than 700,000 settlers have taken up residence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the 1967 war. Both areas are claimed by Palestinians for a future state.

Since Israel first occupied the territories, only the Carter administration, based on a 1978 State Department legal opinion, has outright declared settlements illegal, although all administrations since then have described them as an impediment to peace and have called for freezing settlement expansion and new construction.

A month before President Trump took office, Barack Obama — whose administration referred to settlements as “illegitimate” — became the first U.S. president to withhold a veto from one of countless U.N. resolutions that described them as illegal. In one of its final acts in office, that administration abstained from a U.N. vote that called settlements “a flagrant violation under international law,” allowing it to pass.

Then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry, in a speech explaining the abstention, referred to “the proliferation of settlement outposts that are illegal under Israel’s own laws.”

Pompeo said the administration was returning to policy under Ronald Reagan, pointing out that Reagan said in a 1981 interview that settlements were “not illegal.” Reagan went on in that interview, however, to say that settlements were “ill-advised.” His subsequent 1983 peace plan said that “the immediate adoption of a settlements freeze by Israel, more than any other action,” would enhance the prospects for peace.

“The United States government is expressing no view on the legal status of any individual settlement,” Pompeo said. Such assessments, he said, were up to Israeli courts, and “we are not addressing or prejudging the ultimate status of the West Bank. This is for the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate.”

The announcement drew immediate criticism as ill-timed, and skepticism that it was unrelated to both Israeli and U.S. politics.

“I’m mystified by the timing,” said Dennis Ross, who played a lead role in shaping Middle East policy under several administrations from Reagan to Obama. “If you were still interested in presenting the Trump peace plan, you wouldn’t want to do something that puts key Arab leaders . . . in a position where they would be much more moved to oppose it.”


In Israel, both Netanyahu and former army chief Benny Gantz, who are each vying to form a government following deadlocked elections in September, hailed the shift.

“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 peace,” Gantz said in a statement, using the biblical names for the West Bank that have become the popular parlance among Israelis in recent years.

Netanyahu, who has been a staunch supporter of settlements and proposed annexing the Jordan Valley into Israel proper, praised the move as reflecting “a 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.”

But Pompeo’s announcement was met with dismay by Palestinian leaders as well as peace advocates who view the expansion of settlements as lessening the likelihood — and the size — of a possible future Palestinian state.

“Israeli settlements steal Palestinian land, seize and exploit Palestinian natural resources, and divide, displace and restrict the movement of the people of Palestine,” Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in a statement. “Once again, with this announcement, the Trump administration is demonstrating the extent to which it’s threatening the international system with its unceasing attempts to replace international law with the ‘law of the jungle.’ “

Ayman Odeh, the leader of a faction of Israeli Arab members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, tweeted: “No foreign minister will change the fact that the settlements were built on occupied land where an independent Palestinian state should one day stand beside the State of Israel.”

This latest move is, of course, only the latest example of the extent to which the Trump Administration has broken with past American policy and put its thumb on the scale for Israel in general and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu in particular. Perhaps the best example of that came early in Trump’s Presidency when he followed through on his campaign promise to move the United States Embassy in Israel from its historic location in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. While previous American Presidents had made this promise, and Congress had passed a law requiring the move absent a waiver signed by the President, Trump was the one who followed through on it within his first year in office. Initially, Trump signed the same waiver in June 2017, but when that waiver came up for renewal six months later, he instead decided to pull the plug and make a move that pretty much every Middle East expert said was a bad idea unless and until there is a final peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

More recently, Trump stated on Twitter that he had taken Jerusalem “off the table,” a comment he repeated when he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last year. Yet another example can be found in Vice-President Pence’s speech to the Knesset in January 2018 in which he said to Israeli officials and the public that “your cause is our cause, your values are our values, and your fight is our fight.”

In addition to this, the Trump Administration has cut off aid to the Palestinian government in the West Bank and Gaza that had been in place since the George W. Bush Administration and closed the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington, D.C. Earlier this year, the United States went a step further and recognized Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the Golan Heights which had been seized from Syria in the 1967 war. And now we have this move, which not only continues the process of undermining the credibility of the United States as a neutral party in the Middle East Peace Process but also constitutes blatant disregard of international law.

Daniel Larison comments:

The administration has repeatedly shown its contempt for international law, and this is just the latest example of that. This is part and parcel of the administration’s ongoing normalization of illegal Israeli occupation. We saw the same thing with the decision to recognize the annexation of the Golan Heights. This is likely a prelude to recognizing any further annexations of occupied territory in the West Bank. Treating illegal settlements as if they are acceptable is one more reversal of longstanding U.S. policy, and it is an obvious sop to hard-line pro-settler Israelis and their allies here in the U.S


The failure of U.S. policy here has been to call settlements illegal but then do nothing about their ongoing expansion. If the U.S. had taken its own position seriously decades ago, it is possible that there would be a better basis for a negotiated settlement. As things stand now, the U.S. has allowed Israel to establish “facts on the ground” to their advantage and now the Trump administration is approving of the results. It does matter “who is right and who is wrong” with respect to international law. Pompeo plays the relativist here because he knows that the Israelis are the ones in the wrong on this issue, and he and the president want to give them a free pass. There is an overwhelming international consensus on the illegality of the settlements, and the Trump administration is determined to put the U.S. on the wrong side:

Of course, that’s been the point of Trump Administration policy from the beginning. Much like the far-right of the Republican Party, the Trump Administration, more so than any other Republican Administration since the 1967 war, has made it clear where the United States will stand as long as they are in power. Specifically, of course, that would be an “Israel: Right or Wrong” policy in which, basically, it is seemingly forbidden to even suggest that Israel is ever wrong. It’s bad policy, it harms American national interests, and it’s obviously meant mostly to pander to the far-right of Trump’s base, especially the evangelicals for whom standing behind the far-right elements of Israeli politics is even more important than looking out for their own country.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Israel, National Security, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    Knowing Trump it may not be political pandering, he’s probably being paid. Sheldon Adelson is a real billionaire.

  2. Scott says:

    a decision he said had “increased the likelihood” of a Middle East peace settlement.

    I fail to see how this increases the likelihood of a Middle East peace settlement unless the “settlement” is total annexation of the occupied territories. If this happens, then Palestinians would either have to be full citizens of Israel or herded in apartheid style “homelands”. If Palestinians are citizens then Israel will be a secular, not Jewish, state. They will find happiness with either solutions.

  3. Michael says:

    There’s a reason that they are called the occupied territories.

  4. mike shupp says:

    Need to establish precedents for legitimizing land grabs. Somebody in the area has got to recognize our claim when the USA gets its hands on some oil fields.

  5. Scott says:


    They will find happiness with either solutions.

    Should read: They will NOT find happiness with either solution.

  6. Kit says:

    @Michael Reynolds has it right. From here on out, whenever the US makes any change of direction, the first question ought to be: How did Trump benefit?

    “The timing of this was not tied to anything that had to do with domestic politics anywhere,” [Pomeo] said. “We conducted our review, and this was the appropriate time to bring it forward.”

    First of all, once the White House is liberated, I want all such reviews to be in turn reviewed. I expect heads to roll.

    Second, this isn’t big enough news to seriously distract from the fun going on in the House. And the election is too far off for Trump to be tossing red meat. So, either he’s doing someone’s bidding, or he’s lining his pocket.

  7. Kathy says:

    The US was kind of limited in how effectively it could mediate, given they favored Israel (which in itself is not wrong). Now it’s become the last country in the world capable of mediating, as they don’t just favor Israel, they favor Israel’s policies as if they were their own.

    Effectively the two sides are now Israel and America vs the Palestinians.