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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson April 22, 2019

Was Jimmy Carter the last president to call Israeli settlements illegal?

During a CNN town hall with Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, an audience member asked her, "Where do you stand on Israel and Palestine?"

Williamson said the United States should have "an absolute, simultaneous and equal support" of both Israel’s concerns about its own security and also the Palestinians’ "human rights and dignities and economic opportunities."

As Williamson continued, she referenced Israeli settlements in the West Bank -- territory that was captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War and is viewed by Palestinians as the basis of a future state. Today, an estimated 400,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank, plus 200,000 in east Jerusalem.

Williamson said:

"It has been a long time since the United States could actually be considered by either side as an honest broker. With me as president, they will know that they have in the United States a president who listens deeply. … It's been since Jimmy Carter that we've had a U.S. president to say flat out those settlements are illegal. In me, you would have a president who says those settlements are illegal."

The discussion of Israeli settlements was timely, because shortly before winning re-election as Israel’s prime minister about a week earlier, Benjamin Netanyahu broke with precedent by saying he would annex the West Bank. Critics said that would endanger a future deal that could include a Palestinian state.

The Trump administration hasn’t officially weighed in on the annexation idea, but the administration previously made several moves that align with Netanyahu’s wishes even though they had been rejected by previous U.S. presidents of both parties. The moves include relocating the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and announcing that the Golan Heights — a different territory captured by Israel in the 1967 war — "are part of the State of Israel."

Given the shifts in policy under the Trump administration, we wondered whether Williamson was correct to say that Carter was the last "U.S. president to say flat out those  settlements are illegal." (Williamson’s campaign did not respond to an inquiry.)

We found nuances in the often-murky diplomatic language. And Carter didn’t literally use the word "illegal" while he was president.

Jimmy Carter

At a June 1980 question-and-answer session with the American Jewish Press Association, Carter was asked whether he considered the settlements "illegal." He stopped just short of using that word.

"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," he said, adding, "We have long maintained this position under the administration of previous presidents, back at least 15 years, that the establishment of settlements in that area was contrary to progress toward a comprehensive peace."

Lara Friedman, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, which supports a two-state solution, told PolitiFact that, "in effect, Carter was agreeing with the assertion that he views settlements as illegal — in that they were contrary to the Geneva Convention, meaning illegal — without using that word himself."

At least one of Carter’s subordinates went so far as to use the word "illegal" — the United States representative to the United Nations, William Scranton, in a 1976 speech. "Substantial resettlement of the Israeli civilian population in occupied territories, including in East Jerusalem, is illegal under the (Geneva) Convention," Scanton said.

Friedman added that a group of memos to Carter from his chief of staff Hamilton Jordan used the term "illegal" in relation to Israeli settlements 16 times.

As for Carter himself, it took him until his post-presidential years to actually use the word "illegal" himself. During a 1983 press conference during a trip to the Middle East, Carter said, ''Settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace."

Ronald Reagan

In a 1982 address to the nation, Reagan called for a freeze in settlements as part of peace negotiations, but he didn’t call them "illegal."

"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," Reagan said. "Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs and a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated."

In a speech the following year, Reagan used a turn of phrase short of "illegal" that would recur in future years — that settlements are an "obstacle to peace."

George H.W. Bush

In 1990, Bush reaffirmed the United States’ stance, again without saying "illegal."

"The United States policy on settlement in the occupied territories is unchanged and is clear, and that is, we oppose new settlements in territories beyond the 1967 lines. It is a stated, reaffirmed policy over and over again," Bush said during a news conference with Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev.

During the rest of his term, Bush didn’t use the term "illegal," but U.S. policy turned against settlements in ways that irritated Israel. Bush insisted on settlement-related conditions for loan guarantees for Israel, and his secretary of state, James Baker, offered the "sharpest criticism of Israel on settlements in history," Friedman said.

The Bush White House "considered settlements a serious enough obstacle to push back quite significantly," said Samer S. Shehata, an associate professor in Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Bill Clinton

In 1996, Clinton continued to use the phrase "obstacle to peace," and in 2001, he said that settlements were "inconsistent" with the commitment in the Oslo peace negotiations that "both sides negotiate a compromise."

And the Clinton-commissioned Mitchell Report — a "fact-finding" panel headed by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell — called on Israel to "freeze all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements."

Khaled Elgindy, a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, said dropping the "obstacle to peace" language amounted to a softening of U.S. rhetoric. The Clinton administration "carved out various exemptions that allow Israel to continue building in some settlements," Elgindy said. Subsequent administrations also allowed settlement expansions of various types on an ad-hoc basis, he said.

George W. Bush

The George W. Bush administration put forward a "roadmap" for peace, which included a settlement freeze and a removal of settlement outposts erected since 2001. We found no examples of Bush using the word "illegal" or "obstacle to peace."

Barack Obama

In a June 2009 speech in Cairo, Obama heightened the rhetoric on the illegitimacy of Israeli settlements, but without using the word "illegal."

"Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s," Obama said. "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."

Then, in 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry echoed that language after a meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. "The position of the United States is that we consider now, and have always considered, the settlements to be illegitimate," Kerry said.

Donald Trump

Trump expressed some caution on settlements early in his presidency, telling the newspaper Israel Hayom in February 2017 that settlements "don’t help the process." He added, "Every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left. But we are looking at that, and we are looking at some other options, we’ll see. But no, I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace."

That same month, in a press conference with Netanyahu, Trump said, "As far as settlements, I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit."

In September 2017, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said in a television interview, "I think the settlements are part of Israel," though the State Department later walked back the idea that this was a shift in policy.

More recently, Trump’s moves on the U.S. Embassy and the Golan Heights have fueled speculation that he might go further in accepting Israeli settlements, and pro-settlement groups are lobbying the administration to take the leap.

In an Israeli television interview in April 2019, Netanyahu was asked why he wasn’t yet pushing Trump to change U.S. policy. "Wait until the next term," he replied.

Tracing the rhetorical arc

So Carter never used the term "illegal." But broadly speaking, U.S. statements about the settlements’ legality have gone from tough under Carter to somewhat less tough, though in a bit of a zigzagging way.

"There has definitely been a softening, and it has never reverted back" to what it was under Carter, said David Makovsky, director of the Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Elgindy of Brookings also said it’s reasonable to separate Carter’s rhetoric. "He does stand out substantively from his successors," he said.

Friedman, Foundation for Middle East Peace, added that it’s important to distinguish between rhetoric and policies.

"While the wording under Carter may have been tougher about the legal status of settlements, it was subsequent presidents who tried to put some actual meat on the bones of U.S. anti-settlement policy," she said. "It was Reagan who first called for a settlement freeze. It was George H.W. Bush who imposed conditions on loan guarantees tied to Israel's settlements policy. It was under Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama that the U.S. again called for a settlement freeze."

It’s also important not to get overly focused on the question of legality, Makovsky said. The settlements could still be considered a political "irritant without being illegal," he said.

Our ruling

Williamson said that Jimmy Carter was the last "U.S. president to say flat out those (Israeli) settlements are illegal."

We couldn’t find an example of Carter actually using the word "illegal" to refer to Israeli settlements while he was president. However, he did as an ex-president, and experts agreed that his rhetoric came closer than the words used by his successors in the Oval Office.

At the same time, it’s important to note that subsequent presidents’ actual policies may have had more teeth than Carter’s, despite his tougher rhetoric.

We rate the statement Half True.

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Says Jimmy Carter was the last "U.S. president to say flat out those (Israeli) settlements are illegal."
in a CNN town hall
Sunday, April 14, 2019

Our Sources

Marianne Williamson, CNN town hall, April 14, 2019

Associated Press, "Israeli settlement activity appears to surge in Trump era," Jan. 2, 2019

CNN, "What you need to know about the Israeli settlements," Feb. 3, 2017

Jerusalem Post, "Netanyahu’s Promise to Annex the West Bank Settlements, Explained," April 9, 2019

Shalom Lipner, "Whether Israel annexes the West Bank could be up to Trump, not Netanyahu" (Washington Post op-ed), April 9, 2019

Washington Post, "U.S. ambassador breaks with policy: ‘I think the settlements are part of Israel,’" Sept. 29, 2017

Jewish Telegraphic Agency, "More than a dozen right-wing groups want Trump to recognize an Israeli annexation of the West Bank," April 16, 2019

Churches for Middle East Peace, "Settlements: Statements from U.S. Government Officials," accessed April 17, 2019

American Presidency Project, "Interview With the President Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Representatives of the American Jewish Press Association," June 13, 1980

New York Times, "Excerpts From Scranton's U.N. Speech," March 25, 1976

Carter Presidential Library, papers of Hamilton Jordan, accessed April 17, 2019

New York Times, "West Bank Settlements Are Illegal, Carter Says," March 15, 1983

Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Statement by President Reagan," Sept. 1, 1982

Reagan Presidential Library, "Radio Address to the Nation on the Situation in the Middle East," Aug. 27, 1983

Washington Post, transcript of Bush-Gorbachev news conference, June 4, 1990

New York Times, "Bush Rejects Israel Loan Guarantees," March 18, 1992

New York Times, "Baker Cites Israel for Settlements," May 23, 1991

Los Angeles Times, "In Escalation, Clinton Calls Israeli Settlement Policy Obstacle to Peace," Dec. 17, 1996

Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Report of the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee," Apr 30, 2001

Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," April 30, 2003

Barack Obama, remarks at Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009

Al Jazeera, "Kerry: Israeli settlements are illegitimate," Nov. 6, 2013

Times of Israel, "Trump to Israeli paper: Settlements are ‘not a good thing for peace,’"Feb. 10, 2017

Reuters, "Netanyahu plays pre-election Trump card: settlement annexation," April 7, 2019

Email interview with Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, April 16, 2019

Email interview with Samer S. Shehata, associate professor in Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, April 16, 2019

Email interview with Khaled Elgindy, nonresident fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, April 16, 2019

Interview with David Makovsky, director of the Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, April 16, 2019

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