Israel, Settlements, and the Media

By John Podhoretz

Commentary Magazine

February 2, 2017

Two important things happened tonight: Donald Trump reversed Barack Obama’s policy toward Israel’s settlements, and the New York Times headline on the story about it was “Trump Embraces Pillars of Obama’s Foreign Policy.” #1 is obviously the matter of the greatest importance. #2 is meaningful because it’s part of a pattern of reporting on the Trump administration by the mainstream media that features breathless and hurried assertions of fact on a policy that turn out not to hold water once they are examined.

First, to Trump and Obama and Israel and the settlements. On Thursday night the White House released the following statement: “The American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years. While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal. As the President has expressed many times, he hopes to achieve peace throughout the Middle East region. The Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visits with President Trump later this month.”

What this letter does, in effect, is return the United States to the status quo ante before the Obama administration—specifically, to the policy outlined in a letter sent from George W. Bush to Ariel Sharon in 2004. In that letter, Bush said, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population 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.”

This language was an acceptance of the reality that the most populous Israeli settlements beyond the pre-1967 borders would certainly remain in Israeli hands at the end of any successful peace negotiation with the Palestinians. And according to the officials who negotiated the matter, primarily Elliott Abrams of the Bush National Security Council (and full disclosure: my brother-in-law), it was understood that the expansion of existing population centers due to natural growth (families getting larger, people moving in) should not be considered a violation of the idea that there should be no new settlements. For if, like New York City, Ariel gets more populous, its land mass does not increase in size, just the number of people living there.

The Obama administration did not like these ideas, and reversed them. Its conception of a “settlement freeze” was that it be a freeze on the number of settlers as well as the number of settlements. Add new apartments to Ariel, and you were “expanding the settlements.”

The Trump language puts an end to that idea. It says “the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful.” This returns U.S. policy to the notion that the physical acreage holding settlers should not increase but that the number of settlers is not at issue. This is a wholesale shift in America’s approach.

Astoundingly, the New York Times completely missed this. Its article states: “In the most startling shift, the White House issued an unexpected statement appealing to the Israeli government not to expand the construction of Jewish settlements beyond their current borders in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Such expansion, it said, ‘may not be helpful in achieving’ the goal of peace.”

This is, at best, shockingly ignorant of existing U.S. policy. Indeed, the Trump statement can be read as a radical break even from Bush: as the international law scholar Eugene Kontorovich pointed out on Twitter, it doesn’t even endorse the two-state solution. It merely calls for “peace.”

These hurried reports filled with inaccuracies have become standard issue over the past two weeks, driven by breathless and overly fast reporting whose assertions turn out either to be ignorant or wrong. For example, Peter Alexander of NBC News earlier on Thursday tweeted this: “BREAKING: US Treasury Dept easing Obama admin sanctions to allow companies to do transactions with Russia’s FSB, successor org to KGB.” After 5,800 retweets and assertions that this demonstrated Trump’s fealty to Putin’s Russia, Alexander tweeted this: “NEW: Source familiar w sanctions says it’s a technical fix, planned under Obama, to avoid unintended consequences of cybersanctions.”

The number of retweets of this correction: 240.

There are multiple examples of this pattern, too many to recount here. At a time when the country needs the most accurate and exact reporting on the issues at hand out of Washington due to the hyper-partisan moment we’re living through and the administration’s rather tenuous connection to fact, institutions that would never have made such basic mistakes 30 years ago—because they would have taken the time to talk to several sources before going into print or on TV many, many hour later—are now hurrying things onto the Internet when they don’t really know what is going on. Rather than clarifying things, the media are muddying them and making them worse.