Sean Durns

Politico and Unpleasant Truths

An unauthorized Palestinian building in Area C, built by the EU (photo courtesy of Regavim)

“There are no facts, only interpretations,” the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once asserted. This seems to be the operating principle of Politico, the Washington D.C.-based publication, when it comes to reporting on Israel. Facts that are inconvenient to the preferred interpretation are simply omitted. One only need look at Politico’s Nov. 18, 2019 dispatch “Pompeo bends toward Israel with new U.S. stance toward settlements,” for confirmation.

The article, by correspondents Caitlin Oprysko and Nahal Toosi, details the Trump administration’s recent announcement that it does not consider the construction of “settlements”—homes in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria)—to be illegal. However, the report is littered with omissions and an unwillingness to confront the real obstacle to peace: Palestinian rejectionism.

At a press conference on Nov. 18, 2019, U.S. Sec. of State Mike Pompeo said, “The Trump administration is reversing the Obama administration’s approach towards Israeli settlements.” The decision, Politico told readers, was a rejection of a 1978 State Department legal opinion “that categorically calls Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank ‘inconsistent with international law.’”

In fact, the Carter administration’s 1978 ruling was itself an aberration. As Pompeo noted in his remarks: “In 1981, President Reagan disagreed with that conclusion and stated that he didn’t believe that the settlements were inherently illegal. Subsequent administrations recognized that unrestrained settlement activity could be an obstacle to peace, but they wisely and prudently recognized that dwelling on legal positions didn’t advance peace.”

Indeed, as the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) has detailed, the three Presidents that followed Reagan—George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—purposefully chose not to take a position on the legality of the “settlements.” This remained U.S. policy until the very end of the Obama administration, when, on December 28, 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry declared his re-adoption of the position taken by the Carter administration 38 years earlier. The U.S. has only considered “settlements” to be “illegal” for fewer than four of the last forty years.

Yet, Politico minimizes this relevant history, writing that Pompeo “framed the decision as confronting an inconsistency in U.S. policy.” But it’s not a matter of framing. Rather, it’s a question of facts.

The problem, it seems, is that the frame doesn’t match the picture that Politico prefers—one in which Israel is responsible for the lack of peace and a Palestinian state. To this end, the paper uncritically quotes Gerald Feierstein, a former State Department official, who asserts that the decision “just shows that this administration is completely out of step with where the international community is and with where our own policy consistently since 1967 has been. The reality is that the settlements are a clear violation of international law and nobody else in the world is going to be influenced by a statement to the contrary.”

However, as noted above, U.S. policy hasn’t “consistently” considered the settlements illegal. It is certainly true that some in the “international community”—presumably a reference to the European Union (E.U.) and United Nations (U.N.)—have consistently considered them to be, but as CAMERA detailed in a Dec. 13, 2018 Fox News op-ed, the U.N.’s “anti-Israel bias is undeniable.” As for the E.U., it has financed illegal Palestinian settlements and funded organizations and entities that promote anti-Jewish violence, and its leading member states, France and Germany, have a long track record of appeasing Islamists that call for Israel’s destruction, from Ayatollah Khomeini to Hezbollah.

That either Politico or Ambassador Feierstein thinks that the U.N. or the E.U. are thoughtful barometers on Israel speaks volumes. Feierstein’s comment that the “settlements are a clear violation of international law” is also false, as the legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich has detailed.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Kontorovich noted that “a country cannot occupy territory to which it has sovereign title, and Israel has the strongest claim to the land. International law holds that a new country inherits the borders of the prior geopolitical unit in that territory. Israel was preceded by the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, whose borders included the West Bank.” Indeed, the League of Nations 1922 Palestine Mandate, Article 6 encourages “close settlement by Jews on the land” west of the Jordan River. That covered not only what became Israel in 1948 but also the West Bank. The U.S. Congress (1922), the U.K. (1924 Anglo-American Convention) and the United Nations 1945 Charter XII, have all reaffirmed the League of Nations 1922 Palestine Mandate.

Another scholar and former diplomat, Alan Baker, pointed out in Tablet Magazine that the status of Israel and the West Bank doesn’t fit the “classical situation of belligerent occupation of the land of a sovereign state.” The reason? In 1948 five Arab nations rejected the U.N. Partition Plan and chose to make war on the newly declared Jewish state. As a result of that conflict, Jordan seized the West Bank, which it occupied for nearly twenty years. In the Arab-initiated 1967 War, Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan, whose occupation was only recognized by the U.K. and Pakistan.

In short, the legal status of Israel’s occupation is not the “clear violation of international law” that Feierstein claims. Yet, Politico fails to provide readers with these relevant details. Nor does the paper note that Palestinian leaders have refused U.S. and Israeli offers for a two-state solution on a number of occasions, including 2000 at Camp David, 2001 at Taba and 2008 after the Annapolis Conference. Each of these proposals would’ve given the Palestinians something they’ve never had before: a state. Each included the overwhelming majority of the West Bank. And each was rejected without counteroffer.

Instead, if implicitly, the publication prefers to stick to its preferred story—one in which Jewish homes in Judea, and not Palestinian rejectionism, is the root of the conflict. This is a common narrative; many other news outlets didn’t offer a full history of Israel’s presence in the West Bank, let alone a history of U.S. policy towards “settlements.” But for Politico—whose track record of one-sided reporting on Israel was detailed by CAMERA in a May 26, 2019 op-ed—it does show that there aren’t facts, only interpretations.

The writer is a Senior Research Analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy and Middle East Reporting and Analysis

About the Author
Sean Durns is a Senior Research Analyst for the Washington D.C. office of CAMERA, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.
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