WASHINGTON (CN) - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday the United States will no longer treat Israeli settlements in the West Bank as violations of international law, reversing a 40-year old State Department legal opinion.
The announcement backs away from a 1978 legal opinion that stated civilian settlements in the West Bank and other disputed territory in the area are "inconsistent with international law."
Though the move drew criticism from some advocacy groups and condemnation from the Palestinian president, Pompeo said the Trump administration does not believe the announcement will hinder chances for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
"We believe that what we've done today is we've recognized the reality on the ground," Pompeo said at a press briefing Monday. "We've now declared that settlements are not per se illegal under international law and we have provided...the very space for Israel and the Palestinians to come together to find a political solution to this very, very vexing problem."
Pompeo was careful to note that the U.S. expresses "no view" on whether any individual settlement is legal, saying Israeli courts have a process to deal with that question based on facts specific to each situation.
He also said it does not have bearing on what will happen to the West Bank in any resolution to conflict in Israel, saying that is for the Israeli and Palestinian people to negotiate.
The decision puts the United States at odds with much of the international community. A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the announcement means the Trump administration "has lost its credibility to play any future role in the peace process," according to the Associated Press.
In a statement, the Israel Policy Forum said the policy shift will make it "far more difficult" for an agreement to be reached on the disputed land.
"It places a two-state future even farther out of reach, will isolate not only Israel from the international community but the U.S. as well, and will potentially provide Israel with the dangerous illusion that is has support beyond the narrow confines of this White House to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank," the group said in a statement.
Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent seeking the Democratic nomination for the presidency, also condemned the decision, saying on Twitter that President Donald Trump "is isolating the United States."
For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the decision, saying the Trump administration had righted "a historical wrong."
"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 we will continue to reject all arguments regarding the illegality of settlements," Netanyahu's office said in a statement.
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