Pompeo Becomes First Top U.S. Diplomat at Israeli Settlement
(Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State Michael Pompeo became the first top U.S. diplomat to visit an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, infuriating the Palestinians and underscoring in his waning days as president just how much Donald Trump bound his administration to Israel.
The lenient attitude toward the settlements stands in sharp contrast to international consensus, which regards them as a violation of international law and an obstacle to peace. Israel has built more than 120 settlements in the West Bank, which the Palestinians want as the core of a future state, and has populated them with about half a million people.
Pompeo visited Qasr el Yahud, a site where tradition holds that Jesus was baptized, and then stopped at the Psagot Winery, an establishment that’s been at the center of controversy over efforts to boycott settlement-produced goods. The winery named a red wine after him last year, days after he announced the U.S. no longer considered settlements inherently illegal.
Before the Trump administration, the State Department “took a view that didn’t recognize the history of this special place,” Pompeo said of the settlements, at a news briefing in Jerusalem before his tour. “Today the United States Department of State stands strongly to the recognition that settlements can be done in a way that are lawful and appropriate and proper.”
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, denounced the twin U.S. moves. He called the labeling decision “a flagrant challenge to all international legitimacy decisions” and a “continuation of the decisions of this administration, which insists on activate participation in the occupation of Palestinian lands.”
With Trump’s presidency entering its final weeks, the visits underscored how his administration altered the U.S. relationship with Israel through a series of moves considered unthinkable by predecessors.
It recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. embassy there. It put forward a Middle East peace plan generally seen as highly favorable to Israel, and with its strong backing, abandoned a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
The Trump administration also acknowledged Israel’s sovereignty over the southern section of the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed in a move that isn’t recognized internationally.
Pompeo’s itinerary included a visit to the Golan, where he proclaimed the plateau a buffer against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Imagine with Assad in control of this place, the risk, the harm to the West, to Israel, to the people of Israel,” he said. “President Trump just recognized the basic fact that this indeed is part of Israel.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alluded to the changed landscape when he met Pompeo earlier Thursday.
“Israel is deeply grateful for all that President Trump has done, with you and the others of the team, to strengthen Israel and to advance peace in Israel,” Netanyahu said.
Earlier in the day, Pompeo announced that the U.S. would start withdrawing support from organizations that back the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement, which advocates punishing Israel for its occupation of lands Palestinians claim for a state.
The movement has had negligible impact on the Israeli economy but Israel says the campaign is bent on delegitimizing it.
“The fanatic Trump-Netanyahu alliance is intentionally conflating opposition to Israel’s regime of occupation, colonization and apartheid against Palestinians and calls for nonviolent pressure to end this regime on the one hand with anti-Jewish racism on the other, in order to suppress advocacy of Palestinian rights under international law,” BDS said in a statement.
The frictions over the boycott movement helped explain why Pompeo visited the winery, located on a hilltop overlooking Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority. Last year, the European Court of Justice ruled that companies like the winery must label any of their products for sale in Europe as having been produced in the settlements.
The U.S. in 1995 adopted a policy to require “Made in West Bank” labels on goods produced there. Under the new policy, that will only apply to goods produced in areas where the Palestinian Authority maintains “relevant authorities.”
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