Yet Another Stephen Walt Falsification

Stephen Walt has quite frequently been wrong on Israel. An extremely forgiving observer might explain this by noting there are thousands of miles between Walt’s home in Massachusetts and Israel, where history is recorded in a language foreign to the professor. It is much easier to repeatedly misquote Israeli politicians, for example, when you cannot read the Hebrew of the primary sources and rely exclusively on highly partisan secondary sources.
There is, however, no such excuse for Walt’s errors about American government positions. He casts himself as an expert in American foreign policy. He teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. And the U.S. government conducts its business entirely in English. Distance and language, then, are not an issue.
And yet, in a Feb. 2 blog piece published on the Foreign Policy website, Walt writes:

Last Friday the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council Resolution condemning Israel’s continued expansion of settlements in the occupied territory of the West Bank. The resolution didn’t question Israel’s legitimacy, didn’t declare that “Zionism is racism,” and didn’t call for a boycott or sanctions. It just said that the settlements were illegal and that Israel should stop building them, and called for a peaceful, two-state solution with “secure and recognized borders. The measure was backed by over 120 countries, and 14 members of the security council voted in favor. True to form, only the United States voted no.

There was no strategic justification for this foolish step, because the resolution was in fact consistent with the official policy of every president since Lyndon Johnson. All of those presidents has [sic] understood that the settlements were illegal and an obstacle to peace, and each has tried (albeit with widely varying degrees of enthusiasm) to get Israel to stop building them.

It is rather clear that the “official policy” of the current administration is opposed to labelling settlements illegal. Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, indicated that one of the reasons the U.S. vetoed the resolution was because its disagreement with use of this word:

QUESTION BY MEET THE PRESS’S DAVID GREGORY: Before you go, I want to ask you about the U.N. vote on a resolution brought forward by the Palestinians to declare Israeli settlement activity as illegal. You, as the United States representative there, vetoed that measure because of the word “illegal.” The administration believes that settlements are illegitimate but not necessarily illegal. …

RESPONSE BY AMBASSADOR RICE: First of all, David, we vetoed the resolution not only because of the word “illegal” but because our view is that we need to get the parties back to direct negotiations so that they can agree through direct talks on a two-state solution.

Even more clear was Ronald Reagan’s position on settlements, namely that they are “not illegal.” In the Feb. 3, 1981 edition of the New York Times, the President was quoted saying, “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.”

Subsequent administrations, although perhaps more vague when dealing with the topic, did not reverse course. James Foley, State Department spokesman under President Bill Clinton, answered a question about settlements during an Oct. 1, 1997 press conference by noting, “Our position on — overall position on the question of the legality of settlements remains the same. We’re, of course, not taking a legal position on that overall issue.”

And on April 30, 2004, during George W. Bush’s presidency, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher answered a direct question about the U.S. position on the legality of settlements with as follows:

RICHARD BOUCHER: This administration has not taken an issue (sic) on the legality of them. We’ve taken a position that emphasizes the need to end settlement activity in order to make progress towards a two- state solution and the need to deal with the question of settlements in the final status negotiations.

QUESTIONER: So it’s fair to say — it’s accurate to say that both before and after Sharon’s visit, the United States officially did not take a position on the legality under the Geneva Convention of those settlements?

RICHARD BOUCHER: That’s right.

Stephen Walt’s claim in his blog entry, then, is plainly spurious. The United States does not officially view settlements as illegal, and it has not for the past thirty years.

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