New York Times News Article on Israeli Settlements Falsely Describes US Policy
The front-page New York Times news article about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement about Israeli settlements includes a significant and so-far-uncorrected inaccuracy.
The front-page Times news article begins, “WASHINGTON — 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.”
Yet as recently as March 2017, the Times itself acknowledged in a correction that “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.”
American policy has been, generally, that the settlements aren’t helpful, but not that they violate international law. In 2004, President George W. Bush wrote a letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in which he said he expected some of the settlements would remain part of Israel. “As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338,” Bush wrote in the letter. “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.”
A December 23, 2016, Washington Post editorial denouncing President Barack Obama’s lame-duck decision to throw Israel under the bus by allowing the passage of a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity faulted Obama for changing America’s course on the topic. “President Obama’s decision to abstain on a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements reverses decades of practice by both Democratic and Republican presidents,” the Post editorial said. “The United States vetoed past resolutions on the grounds that they unreasonably singled out Jewish communities in occupied territories as an obstacle to Middle East peace, and that U.N. action was more likely to impede than advance negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians….At the same time, it will almost certainly not stop Israeli construction in the West Bank, much less in East Jerusalem, where Jewish housing was also deemed by the resolution to be ‘a flagrant violation under international law.’ By abstaining, the administration did not explicitly support that position, which has not been U.S. policy since the Carter administration.”
The consul general of Israel in New York, Dani Dayan, who spoke at Harvard Law School this month about the legality of the settlements, also tweeted an excerpt from a statement by President Reagan, who said of the settlements in a February 2, 1981 interview with the New York Times, “I disagreed when the previous Administration referred to them as illegal. They’re not illegal.” Reagan addressed this several times. On October 14, 1980, as a presidential candidate, he said of the Carter administration, “the charge by this Administration at the time those settlements were first started, that they were illegal, was false. They are entirely legal under the U.N. Resolution 242.” And on February 22, 1984, in a news conference, Reagan said of the settlements, “I had never referred to them as illegal, as some did. But I did say that I thought they were not helpful.”
As Northeastern University law professor David M. Phillips wrote in a December 2009 Commentary article “The Illegal Settlements Myth” that was an authoritative treatment of the topic, Eugene Rostow, former dean of Yale Law School and undersecretary of state for political affairs in 1967 during the Six-Day War, considered the West Bank “unallocated territory” and said “Jews have a right to settle in it under the Mandate.”
Even George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state James Baker, not a noted friend of Israel, in a July 20, 1991 news conference in Saudi Arabia was asked whether the U.S. administration’s policy was that settlement activity is illegal and replied, “That is not our policy. No.”
Times reporters may have an interest in making the Trump administration announcement seem like a bigger deal than it is as a way of getting their article more prominent placement in the newspaper. But that doesn’t excuse the lack of accuracy. And the Trump administration, heading into a reelection campaign may have an interest in hyping it as a way of promoting itself politically as a friend of Israel, which is popular among American voters. But if the 2017 editorial deserved a correction — which it did, as the Times recognized back then — then so too does this 2019 Times news article.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.