Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday said the Trump administration does not consider Israeli settlements in the West bank illegal, a shift in a policy that goes back decades and could impact hopes for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Past U.S. policy described the settlements as illegitimate. Palestinians, who cut ties with the Trump administration in 2017 after President Trump announced the U.S. would move its embassy to Jerusalem, claim they need the land for any future independent state.

Pompeo said the change would “increase the likelihood” of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

“The hard truth is that there will never be a judicial resolution to the conflict and arguments about who is right and who is wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace,” he said. “This is a complex political problem that can only be solved by negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”

President Trump has been reshaping U.S.-Middle East policy since taking office, first recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and then Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged ahead of Israel’s April elections he would annex the settlements – a move supported by less than half of the population -- but he has been unable to form a government.

Pompeo said the change in policy actually is a return to that of the Reagan administration. Instead of calling the settlements illegal, former President Ronald Reagan said they were “ill-advised.” An earlier Carter administration opinion characterized them as “inconsistent with international law.”

“After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate, this administration agrees with President Reagan,” Pompeo said. “The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo denied the announcement has anything to do with Israeli elections.

“I am pleased that the effort has concluded and that the secretary’s conclusions have been published,” U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman told The Jerusalem Post. “I believe that they will bring truth and clarity to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and advance the cause of peace.”

A review of U.S. policy followed passage of a 2016 U.N. resolution that called settlement activity a “flagrant violation” of international law that had “no legal validity.” The Obama administration did nothing to block the resolution.

Much of the international community regards Israel’s West Bank settlements as illegal and there have been moves to require Israeli exports from those areas be labeled as such.

Some 450,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, more than three times the number who lived in the area 25 years ago, making up 15% of the total West Bank population and 5% of the Israeli population.

Map of Israel and the West Bank. Map of Israel and the West Bank. Photo: AFP /