The US government on Monday altered its stance on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank by rejecting a 1978 State Department legal opinion that called the establishment of such settlements there "inconsistent with international law."
The move is virtually certain to enrage the Palestinians and their supporters, thus making peace efforts in the region more difficult.
"The conclusion that we will no longer recognize Israeli settlements as per se inconsistent with international law is based on the unique facts, history, and circumstances presented by the established civilian settlements in the West Bank," said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a news conference.
He added that the Donald Trump administration had "carefully" examined all aspects of the issue before arriving at this decision.
The State Department thus abandons a legal opinion issued during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, a Democrat.
That 1978 document, known as the Hansell Memorandum, has been the basis for the opposition of all US governments since that time toward Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, although different administrations have differed in the intensity of that opposition depending on the particular president in office.
The US administration's move, though, sharply reverses the stance of former President Barack Obama, whose administration in December 2016 allowed the United Nations Security Council to adopt a resolution declaring settlement activity a "flagrant violation" of international law with "no legal validity."
Pompeo emphasized that the decision should not be interpreted as Washington "prejudging the ultimate status of the West Bank," adding that from now on the US will not express any opinion regarding the legality of Israeli settlements in that territory.
The top US diplomat argued that trying to find a legal solution to the question of Israeli settlements is something that "hasn't worked" over the past several decades and "hasn't advanced the cause of peace," adding that crafting a viable peace agreement must stem from political negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
The great majority of the countries in the international community take the position that the Jewish state's settlements in the West Bank run counter to international law, specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which prohibits powers occupying territory from displacing the native population there.
Pompeo also said that the measure increases the possibility that the White House's peace plan for the Middle East will work, a plan that has still not been made public and for which no release date has been announced despite being in the works for the past two years.
The secretary of state's announcement comes along with other decisions by the Trump administration that have made the prospects for a Middle East peace accord more problematic, including recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Jewish state's annexation of the Golan Heights, which are a part of Syria.
Other US moves designed to pressure the Palestinians have included ending foreign aid to them and closing their office in Washington.
Critics contend that the Trump administration's moves to favor Israel have markedly harmed the viability of the two-state solution in the Middle East by ignoring Palestinian territorial claims.