Netanyahu pushed US policy change on settlements for months, report says

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed for a United States policy change on settlements for months, according to a report, which was published shortly after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement on Monday that the U.S. government will ease its stance on Israeli settlements.

The prime minister’s office did not immediately respond to Fox News’ request for confirmation, but according to The Times of Israel, which cited a senior Israeli official, Netanyahu has been working on the dramatic change in U.S. policy regarding the settlements “for a number of months.”

The official reportedly added that it was advanced in cooperation with the National Security Council and the department for international law at the attorney general’s office.

Monday’s announcement was the latest move by the Trump administration to bolster Israel’s position and undermine Palestinian claims regarding land sought for a future state.

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Pompeo essentially rejected a 1978 State Department legal opinion holding that civilian settlements in the occupied territories are “inconsistent with international law.” He also said the White House was reversing an Obama administration directive that allowed the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution declaring the settlements a “flagrant violation” of international law.

Trump already broke with his predecessors by deciding earlier to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the U.S. Embassy to that city and closing the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington.

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.

The Netanyahu government was dealt a blow on settlements just last week when the European Court of Justice ruled products made in Israeli settlements must be labeled as such.

Netanyahu’s office released a statement saying the policy shift “rights a historical wrong” concerning settlements.

“This policy reflects an historical truth - that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria,” it said, using the Israeli terms for the West Bank.

“In fact, we are called Jews because we are the people of Judea.”

The statement went on to say, “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.”

It concluded by saying Israel is “deeply grateful” to President Trump, Pompeo and the entire U.S. administration “for their steadfast position supporting truth and justice, and calls upon all responsible countries who hope to advance peace to adopt a similar position.”

Foreign Minister Israel Katz welcomed the U.S. announcement on its policy change toward West Bank settlements tweeting, “There’s no dispute about the right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. This is an appropriate response to the European Court decision & the boycott attempt against Israel.”

While the new announcement is receiving praise from Israeli officials, the international community, which overwhelmingly considers the settlements illegal, is not taking the news favorably.

In a statement sent to Fox News Vice-President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini said, “The European Union's position on Israeli settlement policy in the occupied Palestinian territory is clear and remains unchanged: all settlement activity is illegal under international law and it erodes the viability of the two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace.”

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The statement went on to say, “The EU will continue to support a resumption of a meaningful process towards a negotiated two-state solution, the only realistic and viable way to fulfil the legitimate aspirations of both parties.”

Kelly Craft, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, reacted to Pompeo's announcement on Monday tweeting, “While Israel is surrounded by neighbors who seek its destruction, the international community has the audacity to make this nation the subject of its harshest criticism. I will not stand for this, today or any day.”

“To be clear, the United States remains fully committed to the cause of peace. Today’s announcement does not alter this fact. And just as we are committed to peace, we are committed to #Israel,” she added.

The U.S. shift is a victory for Netanyahu, a longtime booster of the settlements, and had been strongly supported by U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and major Trump donor Sheldon Adelson. Friedman was a major fundraiser for the settlements before becoming ambassador.

On Monday Friedman reacted to the announcement tweeting, “After commissioning a lengthy and comprehensive review of the issues, Secretary Pompeo has concluded that Israeli civilian settlements in Judea and Samaria are not categorically illegal.”

Friedman thanked Trump and Pompeo "for their important work which will advance the cause of peace by creating an appropriate level playing field for future talks.”

Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and quickly began settling the newly conquered territory.

Today, some 700,000 Israelis live in the two areas, which are both claimed by the Palestinians for their state. After the war, it immediately annexed east Jerusalem, home to the holy city’s most important religious sites, in a move that is not internationally recognized.

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But Israel has never annexed the West Bank, even as it has dotted the territory with scores of settlements and tiny settlement outposts. While claiming the fate of the settlements is a subject for negotiations, it has steadily expanded them.

Some major settlements have over 30,000 residents, resembling small cities and serving as suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Settler leaders said the U.S. move to ease its stance toward Israeli settlements is a “major step” toward annexation, The Times of Israel reported.

“We applaud the decision of the American government to recognize the right of the Jewish people to settle, plant and build throughout Judea and Samaria,” Binyamin Regional Council chairman Yisrael Gantz reportedly said, using the biblical name for the West Bank. The Binyamin Regional Council governs dozens of Israeli settlements in southern Samaria.

David Ha’ivri, a Jewish resident of Kfar Tapuach, an Israeli settlement in Samaria, called Pompeo’s announcement a “blessing” and told Fox News, “The Trump administration is worthy of great praise and appreciation for the historic decision to acknowledge that Israel is not committing any crime by allowing Jewish citizens to live in the historic homeland of the Jewish people in Shomron [Samaria] and Judea.”

Yishai Fleisher, The International spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron, which is also in the West Bank, told Fox News, “This decision is huge and it’s a change in the way the world is going to look at the rights of Jews to live in Judea.”

He added, “For Jews living in Hebron, this is just going to mean a sense that the world is beginning to recognize, starting of course with President Trump and his administration, the world is starting to recognize that Jews have lived in Judea and are going to continue to live in Judea forever.”

Palestinians and supporters say the settlements undermine hopes for a two-state solution by gobbling up land sought by the Palestinians.

A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, condemned Pompeo’s announcement.

“The U.S. administration has lost its credibility to play any future role in the peace process,” he said.

Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties in the Knesset [Israeli Parliament], tweeted, “No foreign minister will change the fact that the settlements were built on occupied land on which an independent Palestinian state will be established alongside Israel.”

Jordan's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ayman Safadi, tweeted on Monday, “Settlements in occupied #Palestine are a blatant violation of Int’l [International] law & UNSCRs [United Nations Security Council resolution]. They are an illegal action that’ll kill 2-state solution. Jordan’s position in condemning them is unwavering. We warn against dangerous consequences of US change of position on settlements on MEPP [Middle East Peace Process].”

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Palestinian Authority senior negotiator Saeb Erekat slammed the U.S. policy change on West Bank settlements, The Times of Israel reported.

“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,’” Erekat reportedly said in a statement.

“Henceforth, the international community must take all necessary measures to respond and deter this irresponsible U.S. behavior, which poses a threat to global stability, security, and peace. The only way towards achieving peace in Palestine, Israel, and the entire Middle East is with the freedom and independence of the State of Palestine on the 1967 border with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

Netanyahu tweeted later on Monday, “I spoke on the phone with U.S. President Donald Trump and told him that he had corrected a historic injustice. Somebody needed to say a simple truth, and President Trump did this, just as he did with the recognition of the Golan Heights and the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem.”

“I said to President Trump that we are not in a foreign land. This is our homeland for over 3,000 years. The reason that we are called ‘Jews’ is because we came from here, from Judea,” Netanyahu added in another tweet.

For Netanyahu, the welcome boost comes at a time when he has been weakened domestically by mounting legal woes and two inconclusive elections this year.

Unable to secure a parliamentary majority, Netanyahu is now anxiously waiting to see if his chief rival, Benny Gantz, can put together a coalition. If Gantz fails, the country could be forced into a third election with Netanyahu facing the distraction of a trial.

Gantz praised Pompeo’s announcement tweeting on Monday, “I applaud the US government for its important statement, once again demonstrating its firm stance with Israel and its commitment to the security of the Middle East. The fate of the settlements should be determined by agreements that meet security requirements and promote peace.”

The United Nations Security Council will convene on Wednesday, to discuss recent developments in the Middle East, including Pompeo’s announcement of the policy shift on West Bank settlements.

Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon said on Monday, “Our right to the Land of Israel is grounded not only in a historical claim, but also in the ideas of justice under international law. We welcome the US government’s announcement and I call upon my ambassadorial colleagues to review US’ decision without prejudice and adopt its legal basis.”

In a statement Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki wrote, “The State of Palestine condemns in the strongest terms the U.S. administration's lawless position on Israel's illegal settlements in occupied territory of the State of Palestine, as announced by the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.”

He added that the position “violates international law” and “decades-long international consensus over the issue.”

“The current U.S. Administration has adopted an anti-Palestinian agenda and endeavored to empower and legitimize the Israeli colonial settler agenda. This ideologically driven and irresponsible policy, including this most recent announcement by Secretary Pompeo, prove beyond any doubt that the current U.S. administration has aligned itself with Israel's illegal colonial enterprise and thus fails to meet the most basic requirements of to play any role in any future solution,” the foreign minister said.

He called on the international community to “respond firmly to such destructive behavior by supporting Palestine’s efforts at the international level to protect the two-state solution.”

Al-Malki added, “Allowing this agenda to prevail would ensure the demise of the international order and cause irreversible damage to the achievements of humanity over the past seven decades and threatens to plunge the world into chaos and violence.”

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On Monday, The U.S. Embassy in Israel issued a travel warning to Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, cautioning about Palestinian unrest following Pompeo’s announcement.

Fox News’ Andrew O’Reilly and The Associated Press contributed to this report.