NY Times peddles fake news about settlements

The NY Times has re-written history in reporting on the Trump administration’s announcement that it does not view Israeli settlements in the West Bank as necessarily in violation of international law.  At this point, is anyone surprised?

Here is the first paragraph of the lead story the NYT published:

The Trump administration declared on Monday that the United States does not consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank a violation of international law, reversing four decades of American policy and removing what has been an important barrier to annexation of Palestinian territory.

That’s big news.  The only problem is that it’s almost entirely false.

Over the last four decades, U.S. policy regarding the settlements has varied substantially, and it is simply false to say or imply that during that period every U.S. administration viewed the Israeli settlements as illegal.  So, the truth is that the Trump administration has not “revers[ed] four decades of American policy,” but the NYT clearly doesn’t care about the truth.

President Jimmy Carter, like his predecessor Gerald Ford, did indeed take the position that the settlements are illegal.  But, Ronald Reagan, who followed Carter, rejected that position; instead, he asserted in a nationwide radio address that “new settlements in the occupied territories [are] an obstacle to peace.”

You don’t have to be a lawyer to understand that there is a huge difference between saying (1) all settlements violate international law, and (2) new settlements are an obstacle to peace.  Nevertheless, the staff of the NYT seems to be oblivious to that difference.

The administration of George H.W. Bush, like that of Ronald Reagan, stated that new settlements are an obstacle to peace, but it never asserted they are illegal.  The Clinton administration similarly never made any such assertion.  The administration of George W. Bush likewise never declared the settlements to be illegal.  In fact, in a letter he sent to Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s prime minister, Pres. Bush acknowledged that the larger settlements close to Jerusalem would certainly remain part of Israel after a final two-state solution had been negotiated with the Palestinians.

So, from 1980, when Ronald Reagan became president, until 2008, when George W. Bush left office, the policy of the United States regarding Israeli settlements was that new settlements are an obstacle to peace, and that the final status of the settlements would have to be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians as part of the two-state solution.  George W. Bush went even farther in that he acknowledged that the larger settlements would have to remain part of Israel, with the Palestinians receiving equivalent land that had formerly been Israeli territory.  But, from 1980 to 2008, it had never been U.S. policy that Israeli settlements violate international law.

The Obama administration of course changed all that.  Indeed, it would be perfectly accurate to say that it was the Obama administration that reversed almost three decades of American policy.

Pres. Obama himself, in a speech he delivered in (of all places) Cairo, announced that “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”  And, in December of 2016, just one month before he would leave office, Pres. Obama declined to veto U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemned all the Israeli settlements as in “flagrant violation” of international law.  He then trotted out U.N. Ambassador Samantha Powers and Secretary of State John Kerry, both of whom were happy to falsely state that permitting the adoption of Res. 2334 did not constitute any change in U.S. policy.

To sum up: during the Ford and Carter administrations, from 1974 to 1980, it was U.S. policy that Israeli settlements violated international law.  From the Reagan administration to that of George W. Bush, from 1980 to 2008, it was not U.S. policy that the settlements violated international law.  Rather, the policy was that settlements, particularly new settlements, were an obstacle to a two-state solution with the Palestinians (although George W. Bush acknowledged that the larger settlements would be part of Israel even after a two-state solution).  Then, with the advent of the Obama administration, U.S. policy that had endured for 28 years was reversed, and Pres. Obama picked up where Jimmy Carter left off: Israeli settlements are illegal.

Of course, none of this history is of any interest to the staff of the NYT.  Why would it be?  As we can see from the first paragraph of their story (set forth above), ignoring history gave the NYT the chance, in a single story, to both throw some mud on Israel, while at the same time making Pres. Trump look foolish.  That was a two-fer that was obviously too tempting to resist.

About the Author
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the N.Y. Bar; he also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Michigan (1971). He now lives in Cary, NC. His scholarly papers on U.S. constitutional law can be read on the Social Science Research Network at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=2523973
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