Netanyahu celebrates US settlement decision in West Bank

ALON SHVUT, Palestinian Territory — Israel’s prime minister travelled to the West Bank on Tuesday to celebrate the U.S.’s announcement that it does not consider Israeli settlements to violate international law.

Benjamin Netanyahu called the Trump administration’s declaration, which stepped back from four decades of U.S. policy and reversed the policies of President Barack Obama, a "huge achievement" that "fixed a historic wrong."

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"I think it is a great day for the state of Israel and an achievement that will remain for decades," he said.

Netanyahu spoke at a gathering of ecstatic supporters and settler leaders in Alon Shvut, a settlement outside of Jerusalem.

Israeli right-wing leaders welcomed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement. Although it is largely symbolic, it fueled calls from settler supporters for increased construction or even the annexation of parts of the West Bank.

Later Tuesday, Netanyahu said the U.S. decision "gives us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to annex the Jordan Valley, an area in the West Bank seen as the breadbasket of a Palestinian state. In a video, he called on his political rivals, with whom he is currently in coalition talks, to form a unity government and make annexing the area its first priority.

Netanyahu has previously vowed to annex the area, a move that would swallow up most of the West Bank territory sought by the Palestinians, leaving them with little more than isolated enclaves. Israel sees the territory as a security asset.

The Palestinians, who claim the West Bank as part of a future state, condemned the U.S. decision. They and other countries said the move undercuts any chances of a broader peace deal.

Over 400,000 settlers now live in the West Bank, in addition to more than 200,000 settlers in east Jerusalem, the Palestinian’s hoped-for capital.

The Palestinians and the international community say that settlements are illegal and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. Israel says the fate of the settlements should be determined in negotiations.

The head of the Arab League joined the large number of critics, condemning the Trump administration’s latest decision "in the strongest terms."

The league’s secretary-general, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said the decision would result in "more violence and cruelty" against the Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli settlers and "undermines any possibility" of achieving peace.

The White House says it has developed a Mideast peace plan, but it has not yet unveiled it. The Palestinians already have rejected the plan, accusing the U.S. of unfair bias in favour of Israel.

The Trump administration has made a number of moves in favour of Israel, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and shuttering the Palestinian diplomatic offices in Washington.

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