US refuses comment on Israeli settlement law

WASHINGTON - The United States refused to comment Monday on a new Israeli law legalizing dozens of Jewish settlements built on private Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.

Washington has disapproved of Israeli settlement building for decades, and in the final weeks of former president Barack Obama's administration stepped up its criticism.

But US policy has become less clear in the 17 days since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, and on Monday his State Department refused to take a position.

"The administration needs to have the chance to fully consult with all parties on the way forward," a State Department official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"At this point, indications are that this legislation is likely to be reviewed by the relevant Israeli courts, and the Trump administration will withhold comment on the legislation until the relevant court ruling."

The law was approved by 60 members of the Israeli parliament to 52 against, and was immediately slammed by the Palestinians as a means to "legalize theft."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had updated the US administration so as not to surprise "our friends."

And Bezalel Smotrich of the far-right Jewish Home party thanked the US people for electing Trump as president, "without whom the law would have probably not passed."

The new law will allow Israel to legally seize Palestinian private land on which Israelis built without knowing it was private property or because the state allowed them to do so.

Palestinian owners will be compensated financially or with other land.

Under the previous US administration the State Department under then secretary of state John Kerry was clear that settlement building was endangering the cause of peace.

The State Department official said Washington still hopes for a peace deal but understands that the Israeli law will face challenges in the country's own judicial system.

"Among other reasons, this is the first time since 1967 that Israeli civil law is being applied directly to the West Bank, and that Israel's attorney general has stated publicly that he will not defend it in court," he said.

But the US official tried to dissuade the Palestinians or their supporters from challenging the law themselves before the international community.

"We are concerned that other actors have said they may seek to challenge this measure in multilateral fora, including at the International Criminal Court," he said.

"We continue to strongly oppose actions against Israel at the ICC as counterproductive to the cause of peace."