The New York Times today issued this correction to its 4 August article “Israeli Decree on West Bank Settlements Will Harm Peace Talks, Palestinians Say” by Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren:
An earlier version of this article misstated the United States’ view of the West Bank settlements seized by Israel in the 1967 war. While much of the rest of the world considers them illegal, for several decades the United States has not taken a position on the settlements’ legality; In a statement on Tuesday, the State Department said, “We do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity.”
But the “correction” is wrong. Even if the United States does not now dare to say that Israeli settlements are illegal, it has done so clearly in the past, including in binding UN resolutions.
UN Security Council Resolution 465 of 1980, for instance, states:
all measures taken by Israel to change the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure or status of the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, or any part thereof, have no legal validity and that Israel’s policy and practices of settling parts of its population and new immigrants in those territories constitute a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War and also constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.
As the official voting record for that resolution indicates, it passed through the Security Council unanimously, which means the United States voted for a binding resolution declaring the settlements to be illegal.
The finding in this resolution has been reiterated repeatedly by the Security Council, and it has never been rescinded. It is also consistent with a 1979 State Department legal opinion that the settlements are illegal.
Statements by US officials on illegality of settlements
At the time, the US clearly considered the settlements to be illegal.
As President Jimmy Carter said in a 13 June 1980 press conference, “We consider these settlements to be contrary to the Geneva Convention, that occupied territories should not be changed by the establishment of permanent settlements by the occupying power …” (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Jimmy Carter, 1980 [Government Printing Office, 1982], p. 1114, cited in US Official Statements, [Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992 ISBN 0-88728-244-X]).
Carter had stated his position previously, as president, for example, on 12 April 1980: “Our position on the settlements is very clear. We do not think they are legal, and they are obviously an impediment to peace. The Israeli Government, however, feels that they have a right to those settlements …” (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Jimmy Carter, 1980, p.680).
US Secretary of State James Baker stated at a 20 July 1991 press conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that “The settlement activity is something that the United States has opposed for a long time. Our particular opposition today to settlement activity is that it constitutes an obstacle to peace. In the past, the position of the United States has been that it was, in fact, illegal” (Foreign Policy Bulletin, vol.2, no.2, Sep/Oct 1991, pp.61-62, cited in US Official Statements).
After this, the Clinton administration and all its successors began to use watered down language, calling the settlements such things as “unhelpful” or “obstacles to peace.”
The Obama administration introduced the tricky phrase – quoted in the “correction” – that the US “does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity.” The statement makes a nod toward international law, but the insertion of the word “continued” is a clever way for Obama to say that, like his predecessors, he accepts all the existing settlements. It’s just the new ones he doesn’t like.
What is The New York Times trying to say?
A plain reading of the “correction” is that it is an effort to mislead readers into thinking the United States has never considered Israeli settlements to be illegal. This is obviously untrue.
If the Times wanted to inform readers, instead of serving as a propaganda platform for whitewashing Israeli policies, it could have said something like this: “The United States has in the past stated that Israeli settlements are illegal, and has voted for UN Security Council resolutions affirming this position. In recent years, the United States has, however, refused to re-state its position publicly, opting instead for formulas less likely to put it into conflict with Israel and its US-based lobby.”
That would be true.