Blinken Says New Israeli Settlements in West Bank Are Illegal, Reversing Trump Policy
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Friday that the American government now considers new Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories to be “inconsistent with international law,” marking a reversal of a policy set under the Trump administration and a return to a decades-long U.S. position on the contentious subject.
Mr. Blinken spoke at a news conference in Buenos Aires, after Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, made an announcement on Thursday indicating thousands of new residences would be added to settlements. Mr. Blinken said he was “disappointed” at the announcement.
“It’s been longstanding U.S. policy under Republican and Democratic administrations alike that new settlements are counterproductive to reaching enduring peace,” he said. “They’re inconsistent with international law. Our administration maintains firm opposition to settlement expansion. And in our judgment, this only weakens — it doesn’t strengthen — Israel’s security.”
Mr. Blinken was in Argentina for meetings with the recently elected president, Javier Milei, and the foreign minister, Diana Mondino.
In Washington, John F. Kirby, a White House spokesman, reiterated that stance in comments to reporters. “This is a position that has been consistent over a range of Republican and Democratic administrations — if there’s an administration that is being inconsistent, it was the previous one,” he said.
State Department officials declined to say what actions, if any, the United States might take to hold Israeli settlers or the government legally accountable for the building of new settlements.
Over many years, settlements have proliferated across the West Bank, Palestinian territory that is occupied by Israel, without the United States pushing for any legal action. About 500,000 residents now live in the occupied West Bank and more than 200,000 in East Jerusalem.
In November 2019, President Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, reversed four decades of U.S. policy by saying that settlements did not violate international law. State Department lawyers never issued a new legal determination that buttressed that policy change, and Mr. Blinken’s shift back to the old policy is consistent with a longstanding legal finding of the department.
Starting in 2021, when President Biden took office, diplomatic reporters asked State Department officials whether Mr. Blinken planned to reverse Mr. Pompeo’s move, but the officials each time said there was no change to policy.
Some State Department officials had grown uneasy last year over the sharp surge in acts of violence by extremist settlers. After the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, violence increased in the West Bank, and Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken began denouncing the actions and the expansion of settlements.
On Friday afternoon, Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a liberal Jewish American advocacy group that tries to shape policy on Israel, praised Mr. Blinken’s announcement.
“Now, the administration must make clear that, particularly in light of the volatility of the current situation between Israelis and Palestinians, there must be no further expansion of the settlement enterprise,” he said in a statement. He added that the Biden administration should show it “will take further steps to enforce its view — and the view of the international community — that the creeping annexation of the West Bank must stop.”
Mr. Pompeo’s move in 2019 bolstered the position of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who had vowed during two elections that year to annex the West Bank. Mr. Netanyahu’s new ruling coalition has several far-right ministers that support that direction, and it is those politicians who have helped Mr. Netanyahu stay in power despite the widespread criticism of him over his inability to protect Israel from the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas and his moves to undermine the judiciary’s power.
On Thursday night, the office of one of those ministers, Mr. Smotrich, announced that an existing Israeli planning committee that oversees construction in the West Bank would be convened.
He said the committee would move ahead with plans for more than 3,000 housing units, most of them in Ma’ale Adumim, near the site of a Palestinian shooting attack earlier that same day. Mr. Smotrich’s office described the expansion of the settlement as an “appropriate Zionist response” to the attack.
“Let every terrorist plotting to harm us know that raising a hand against the citizens of Israel will be met with death, destruction, and the deepening of our eternal grip on the entire Land of Israel,” Mr. Smotrich said in a statement
Mr. Smotrich’s office did not say when the committee would be convened, whether the housing units would be new homes or what stage of the planning process they were in.
Mr. Blinken also said he would withhold judgment on the postwar plan for Gaza that Mr. Netanyahu has begun to circulate among Israeli officials. Mr. Blinken said any plan has to align with three principles: Gaza should not be a base for terrorism; the Israeli government should not reoccupy Gaza; and the size of Gaza’s territory should not be reduced.
”There are certain basic principles that we set out many months ago,” he said, referring to the outcome of a diplomatic conclave in Tokyo, “that we feel are very important when it comes to Gaza’s future.”
Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting from Jerusalem.