U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that Washington's backing for Israel's settlements in the occupied West Bank will advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, angering Palestinian leaders who seek the territory for a state.
In a reversal of four decades of U.S. policy, Pompeo in November announced that the United States no longer viewed Israel's settlements on West Bank land it captured in the 1967 Middle East war as "inconsistent with international law".
Palestinians and the international community view the transfer of any country's civilians to occupied land as illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and U.N. Security Council resolutions. Many countries condemned the announcement.
But the move delighted Israel and provides important U.S. support amid a potential International Criminal Court (ICC) inquiry into alleged war crimes in Palestinian areas, including the West Bank.
Speaking by video link at a Jerusalem policy forum dubbed "The Pompeo Doctrine", Pompeo, in a pre-recorded statement, said the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump returned to a "balanced and sober" approach to Middle East peace by changing its position.
"It's important that we speak the truth when the facts lead us to it. And we are recognizing that these settlements don't inherently violate international law," Pompeo said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the Trump administration's backing was a "proper answer to the decision by the ICC in the Hague to investigate Israel's actions in Judea and Samaria", referring to the West Bank.
Last month, the ICC's chief prosecutor said she would launch a full investigation in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip as soon as the Hague-based body's jurisdiction had been established.
The prosecutor's announcement opened the possibility of charges being filed against Israelis and Palestinians.
"The 'Pompeo doctrine' regarding the status of the settlements simply states that we are not foreigners in our homeland," Netanyahu told the conference, hosted by the Kohelet Policy Forum, a Jerusalem think-tank.
The conference sought to build upon the new U.S. stance by laying out legal arguments in defense of Israel's settlements and debating critics' defenses.
Around 430,000 settlers live amongst some 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank, where the Palestinians seek to set up a state along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
"Israeli colonial settlements are illegal under international law ... ignoring facts (doesn't) mean they don't exist," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
Erekat added that U.S. policy was pushing "the region further towards bloodshed and violence".
The Palestinians have boycotted the Trump administration and its peace efforts, including its long-delayed peace plan, accusing Washington of pro-Israel bias since it recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital in 2017 and later moved its embassy there.