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Media Wrongly Claim Trump Reversing 'Decades' of Israeli Settlement Policy

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Cross posted to the MRC's NewsBusters blog

In the aftermath of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's announcement that the Donald Trump administration is essentially reversing the Barack Obama policy of declaring Israeli settlements as illegal, most of the dominant media have inaccurately claimed that Trump has reversed 'decades" of U.S. policy on the matter.

In fact, it was Obama who diverged from his predecessors when then-Secretary of State John Kerry voiced agreement with the Jimmy Carter administration on the matter in December 2016 while explaining the decision not to veto a U.N. Security Council vote against the settlements.

Fox News Channel carried Pompeo's press conference live on Monday afternoon about 2:30 p.m., and then host Dana Perino recalled for viewers:

You've been watching Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department giving kind of a rare briefing. … .The news that he made that is a big deal is that the Trump administration decision that was made in December of 2016 about the settlements in Israel, and the Secretary of State laying out how "we are not prejudging anything, we are not commenting or expressing a view on the legality of the settlements, but we are reversing the Obama administration position at this time."

By contrast, a few hours later, shortly before 7:00 p.m. on CNN's The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer proclaimed:

Tonight, the Trump administration is reversing -- reversing longstanding U.S. policy on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. The Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, says the United States is now abandoning its decades-long position that objected to the settlements. The European Union strongly condemned the move by the Trump administration.

Other shows on ABC, NBC, MSNBC and PBS made similar misleading characterizations of the policy change. But, as explained by CAMERA, it is more accurate to describe the move as returning the U.S policy back to what it was for several decades going back to the Ronald Reagan administration.

In 1978, the Jimmy Carter administration State Department gave the opinion that the settlements violate international law, but other Presidents from Reagan onward did not incorporate the opinion into their policy, taking a neutral position on whether the settlements are legal, until December 2016 when then-Secretary of State voiced agreement with the Carter administration policy a month before Obama left office. In a speech before the State Department, Kerry declared (39 minutes in):

In 1978, the State Department legal advisor advised the Congress of his conclusion that the Israeli government's program of establishing civilian settlements in the occupied territory is inconsistent with international law, and we see no change since then to effect that fundamental conclusion.

It is true that part of Pompeo's announcement was that the State Department had handed down a new legal opinion that contradicts the 1978 view, but the1978 opinion had not been adhered to by other Presidents anyway, so it is more accurate to characterize the Trump move as returning to the policy of the past decades, as was argued by State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus as she appeared on Monday's The Story with Martha MacCallum on Fox News Channel. Ortagus explained:

Actually what we said is we were taking back to a position that had been for decades, you know, careful bipartisan approach. And what we're saying is that we're not actually declaring that the settlements are illegal or legal. Instead, we're getting it back to that neutral approach so that we can bring both parties and both sides together. It's important to remember that after Hillary Clinton lost election, in the eleventh hour of the Obama presidency, Secretary Kerry came out and reversed the position that we had toward Israel.

Also of note, several shows related that right-wing politicians in Israel like Prime Minister Netanyahu were happy with the decision, but it was only mentioned by MSNBC host Ali Velshi that center-left Israeli prime minister candidate Benny Gantz also praised the Trump administration decision, although Velshi did not clarify that Gantz is left-leaning.

Below is a transcript of how other shows described the policy move from Tuesday, November 19:

ABC's Good Morning America:

ROBIN WRGHT: Now, to that major change in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reversing a 40-year position now declaring that Israeli settlements on the West Bank do no violate international law.

(…)

JAMES LONGMAN: This is a major reversal of U.S. policy. The Israeli settlements are communities established on land occupied by Israel. For 40 years, the U.S. argued they are inconsistent with international law, but now the Trump administration has changed this position, and says this is an issue for Israelis and Palestinians to decide between themselves.

NBC's Today show:

RICHARD ENGEL: It Is a big shift. That policy stood for four decades, but now the Trump administration has reversed it and changed it's position on Israeli settlements. In a major change of foreign policy, the Trump administration said it no longer considers Jewish communities built on Palestinian lands known as settlements to be against international law.

CNN's New Day:

JOHN BERMAN: The Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Jewish settlements in the West Bank do no violate international law. … This is a reversal of decades of U.S. policy and the issue that's really been the lynchpin of Middle East peace discussions for decades.

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