Reinstated US Position on Settlements Revives Long-Standing Misreporting on Decades-Old Policy

The Biden Administration’s decision Friday to reinstate President Obama’s position that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law has revived recurrent misreporting of decades-old American policy.

For instance, Reuters’  Feb. 23 article, “US says Israel’s new settlements in West Bank are ‘inconsistent’ with international law,” erroneously recounts the history of U.S. policy regarding the legality of Israeli settlements in the disputed West Bank.

The opening paragraph errs:

The Biden administration on Friday said Israel’s expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank is inconsistent with international law, signaling a return to long-standing U.S. policy on the issue that had been reversed by the previous administration of Donald Trump.

The errors continue:

In November 2019, Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Washington no longer viewed Israel’s settlements on West Bank land it captured in the 1967 Middle East war as “inconsistent with international law,” a reversal of four decades of U.S. policy. [Emphases added].

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in 2022 (Photo by U.S. Institute of Peace, U.S. Institute of Peace, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Similarly, The New York Times wrongly alleges that the Biden administration’s determination that settlements are illegal under international law restores a decades-old U.S. policy (“Biden Caught in a Political Bind Over Israel Policy,” page A6, Feb. 25):

During a trip to Argentina on Friday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called any new settlements “inconsistent with international law,” a break with policy set under the Trump administration and a return to the decades-long U.S. position. [Emphasis added.]

A second New York Times article rehashes the false assertion that for decades American policy considered Israeli settlements illegal under international law. The opening paragraph stated (“Reversing Trump Policy, Blinken Says New Israeli Settlements Are Illegal, page A9, Feb. 24, 2024, and online here):

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Friday that the American government now considers new Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories to be “inconsistent with international law,” marking a reversal of a policy set under the Trump administration and a return to a decades-long U.S. position on the contentious subject.

In fact, the Trump administration’s 2019 decision overturned a policy that was in place for just three years –  since the December 2016 Obama administration decision to consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal under international law – and not decades as reported. Prior to the 2016 Obama decision, and dating back decades until the Carter administration, U.S. policy from Reagan until Obama considered settlements an obstacle to peace, but did not take a stance on their legality.

Since the Reagan administration, which explicitly said it did not believe the settlements were illegal, U.S. administrations have instead characterized the settlements as an obstacle to peace and illegitimate. They have not characterized the settlements as “illegal.”

Indeed, over the years, numerous media outlets corrected after erroneously reporting that prior to the Obama Administration’s 2016 decision the U.S. considered settlements illegal under international law: Associated Press (2016, a month before Obama’s December reversal of long-standing policy), Washington Post (2016); The Times (UK, 2016); ABC (Dec. 19, 2016); Boston Globe (2004), and Times of Israel (2024, 2018 and 2016). Most recently, Times of Israel corrected yesterday after initially misreporting (“US House speaker slams Biden admin for restoring policy against Israeli settlements“):

US Speaker of the House Mike Johnson blasted the Biden administration’s decision to restore a longstanding policy that considers settlements inconsistent with international law after it had been altered by the previous administration. [Emphasis added, screenshot at left.] …
The 2019 policy implemented by Pompeo overturned a 1978 memo by State Department legal adviser Herbert Hansell, which characterized settlements as illegal.

In response to communication from CAMERA’s Israel office, Times of Israel yesterday commendably amended its article to accurately report:

US Speaker of the House Mike Johnson blasted the Biden administration’s decision to restore a former US policy that considers settlements inconsistent with international law after it had been altered by the previous administration.

In addition, the updated Times of Israel story now carefully explains:

The 2019 policy implemented by Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo rejected views held for decades by administrations from both parties that maintained varying degrees of adversarial relationships with West Bank settlements. The Pompeo policy — for the first time — saw the US take a neutral, if not supportive, view of Israel’s presence beyond the Green Line.

Blinken’s remarks restored the validity of a 1978 State Department memo that viewed settlements as illegal, a US official told The Times of Israel earlier this week, adding that a more formal step wasn’t required because Pompeo’s policy was merely announced in a statement akin to the one made Friday by his successor. The new Biden policy is also consistent with that of former president Barack Obama, who allowed a UN Security Council resolution to pass in 2016 that also deemed settlements to be illegal under international law.

Similarly, the Financial Times corrected in 2019 after wrongly reporting that Pompeo “overturned 40 years of US policy.”

Even The New York Times twice previously corrected the error (2013 and 2017), though its commendable corrections did not prevent the paper from repeating the “decades-old” error both in recent days and in 2020, when it refused to correct (as if the long-standing U.S. policy magically changed in the subsequent three years). The Times’ 2017 correction rightly noted:

An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated the United States’ position on settlement building in the occupied territories. It has been highly critical of the activity, but has not consistent [sic] held it to be illegal.

The Times’ 2013 correction accurately stated:

An article on Monday about a decision by the Israeli cabinet to add several Jewish settlements in the West Bank territory seized by Israel in the 1967 war to a list of communities eligible for extra subsidies and better mortgage rates and loans for new homeowners misstated the United States’ view of such settlements. While much of the rest of the world considers them illegal, as the article noted, the United States has taken no formal position in the last several years on whether they are legal or illegal. (In a statement on Tuesday, the State Department said, “We do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity.” )

In 2020, CAMERA’s Gilead Ini previously detailed The Times’ own 1980s reporting which belies the paper’s current claims of a “decades-long” American position holding that settlements are illegal under international law:

As Ronald Reagan told the New York Times in 1981, his view was that settlements are “not illegal”:

As to the West Bank, I believe the settlements there — I disagreed when the previous Administration referred to them as illegal, they’re not illegal. (Feb. 3, 1981) …

New York Times reporters covering the Reagan administration had no doubts about the president’s views. On Feb. 6, 1981, a front-page story in the Times explained that “The President, speaking with five reporters, said that he stood by his campaign statement that the Carter Administration was wrong in describing Israeli settlements in occupied territory as illegal.”

On Feb. 19, 1981, the paper reported that “President Reagan, while reversing former President Carter’s assertion that the settlements are illegal under international law, has called them ill-advised and unnecessarily provocative.”

His Secretary of State, George Shultz, is cited in the New York Times, under the heading “Reagan’s View on Settlements,” reiterating that the President did not view settlements as illegal:

As to the continued Israeli settlements on the West Bank, Mr. Shultz said on Friday at his news conference that President Reagan, while believing they were not illegal, had told him recently that expansion of the settlements was ”not a constructive move.” He said then and again today that he agreed with Mr. Reagan. (Aug. 23, 1982)

While the Biden Administration’s decision to consider settlements illegal under international law in no way restores a decades-long U.S. policy, media reports that it does just that revive oft-repeated miscoverage of U.S. policy. 

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