Posted on July 06, 2009 in Washington Watch

Largely because the Obama Administration has directly challenged Israel’s continuing settlement expansion in the West Bank, the issue has been receiving unprecedented US press coverage. Last week alone, there were several dozen editorials, commentaries and news articles appearing in major US dailies.

For more than three decades now, Israel has, despite US objections, carefully plotted its settlement building program as a way of creating “facts on the ground” in order to establish its claim to all, or at least significant parts, of the occupied lands. Given Israel’s persistence in furthering this settlement enterprise, US Presidents have reacted—sometimes harshly, sometimes merely objecting, but with a “wink and a nod.” In this context, it is useful to review the evolving US language on settlements.

President Carter

In the midst of the Camp David negotiations, Carter believed he had secured a commitment from Israeli Prime Minister Begin to halt settlement expansion. When construction continued, Carter sought a legal opinion from the State Department Legal Advisor who determined that settlements were, in fact, a violation of the 4th Geneva Convention, (the applicable international law governing the behavior of occupying powers).

Carter’s comments on settlements often made reference to this ruling.
“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. The ultimate status of the West Bank and Gaza area will be determined through negotiations, [the US has] long maintained this position that the establishment of settlements in that area was contrary to progress toward a comprehensive peace.” (June, 1980)

President Reagan

At the end of Israel’s 1982 war in Lebanon, Reagan proposed a peace initiative. As part of this effort, he spoke out against settlements.
“The United States will not support the use of any additional land for the purpose of settlements. Indeed, the immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed for wider participation in these talks. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated.”(September, 1982)

But, in an off moment, Reagan undermined this position and Carter’s policy when he carelessly said, in a 1983 interview, that “there certainly is no illegality to the building [of settlements].” Months later, Reagan reverted to tougher language saying:
“The establishment of new Israeli settlements in the occupied territories is an obstacle to peace, and we’re concerned over the negative effect that this activity has on Arab confidence in Israel’s willingness to return territory in exchange for security and freely and fairly negotiated peace treaty.” (August, 1983)

But the damage was done. While the Carter-era determination on the illegality of settlements has never been rescinded, no US president, since Reagan, has made reference to settlements as illegal.


President George H.W. Bush

Even before the 1991 Gulf War, Bush was firm in his opposition to settlements.

“The United States policy on settlements in the occupied territories is unchanged and is clear: We oppose new settlements in territories beyond the 1967 lines—settlements [are] contrary to the United States policy; and I will continue to reiterate the policy, and try to persuade the Government of Israel that it is counterproductive to go forward with additional settlements in these territories. Our objective is to get the parties to the peace table.” (June, 1990)

Following the war, Bush invested significant political capital in organizing the Madrid Peace Conference. As part of the confidence building efforts leading up to this conference, Bush secured an end to the Arab secondary economic boycott of Israel in exchange for a promised Israeli settlement freeze. When Israel persisted in new construction, Bush retaliated by withholding $10 billion in loan guarantees Israel was seeking in order to resettle Soviet Jews. After Labor’s Yitzak Rabin defeated the Likud Party in 1992, Bush freed up the guarantees, but in a way which ultimately undercut his stated goal of stopping settlements. He allowed Israel to receive $2 billion in guarantees each year, with the proviso that the annual amount they spent on settlements (between $250-$300 million) be deducted from the total. A “price” Israel was all too willing to pay.

President Clinton

Having inherited the Oslo Accords, which Israelis and Palestinians negotiated on their own, Clinton took a different approach to settlements, now arguing that continued settlements and road construction was in violation of the “Oslo process” which prohibited the parties from undertaking “unilateral activities” that could predetermine the outcome of final negotiation.
“The settlement issue under the Oslo Accords is a matter for determination between the parties as we move to the end of the negotiations. And we have encouraged everyone not to do anything which would weaken the chances of peace.”
(July, 1996)

“The settlement enterprise and building bypass roads in the heart of what they already know will one day be a part of a Palestinian state is inconsistent with the Oslo commitment that both sides negotiate a compromise.” (January, 2001)


President George W. Bush

While continuing to express its concern with settlement expansion, the Bush Administration often took positions which enabled settlement growth. Although the Mitchell Plan submitted to Bush in May of 2001 called for an end to violence and an end to settlement expansion as the first steps in restoring the peace process. Bush appeared to side with Israel’s interpretation of the plan, insisting that until all violence stopped, Israel was not obligated to fulfill what was required of it.

Bush also appeared to accede to Israel’s effort to distinguish between “legal” settlements and “illegal” outposts. He insisted that the latter be removed (although they were not), while only paying scant attention to the former, which Israel proceeded to encapsulate behind a 420 mile wall/barrier—in effect redrawing its borders with the West Bank.

As a further example of this Bush-era enabling ambivalence, Bush, despite endorsing the 2002 “Road Map” (which called on the Government of Israel to dismantle all settlement outposts erected since March 2001 and to, as outlined in the Mitchell Report, freeze all settlement activity, including the natural growth of settlements), sent a letter to Prime Minister Sharon in April of 2004 in which he stated that, “in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect” that these settlements will be returned after final status negotiations.

President Obama

Obama, it appears, is attempting to turn the corner on this issue, but it remains to be seen how forcefully or completely this turn will be. Speaking in Cairo, for example, Obama referred to settlements saying that, “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace…it is time for these settlements to stop.”

When challenged by the Israelis on the need to allow “natural growth” and their claim that the Bush Administration had given them permission to build within the “blocs”—i.e. the “new reality”—it was assumed Israel would annex, the Obama Administration denied the validity of the Bush “promise” and Secretary Clinton rather forcefully stated (speaking of President Obama), “he wants to see a stop to settlements—not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions…That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly.”

Questions, of course, remain. What does calling into question the “legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements” mean? Is the President suggesting that settlements are illegal, or is he only raising questions about new settlement construction? And, what will the Obama Administration make of the Bush era acceptance of new realities? Or have they drawn a line in the sand, and will they remain firm in refusing to negotiate this matter with the Israelis?

A final note: When Carter was President there were approximately 50,000 settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. By the beginning of Clinton’s term in office, the number had grown to 242,000. During George W. Bush’s time in office the total number of settlers grew from 365,000 to 490,000.