(CNSNews.com) – Asserting that the United States views Jewish settlements as “illegitimate” does not amount to prejudging the outcome of negotiations aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday.
The U.S. has not recognized the legitimacy of settlements in the disputed territories “for decades,” she told a press briefing.
“Every administration in recent memory has said that the settlements are illegitimate,” Psaki added. “So it’s been a pretty consistent position for quite some time now.”
Some 520,000 Israelis – around seven percent of the total population – live in areas claimed by the Palestinians, including long-established suburbs of east, north and south Jerusalem.
Increasingly often in recent months, Secretary of State John Kerry and State Department officials have made the point about settlement illegitimacy.
Usually, they have attributed the term to “continued” settlement activity – implying active construction work in existing or new settlements. (President Obama used the same term in his 2009 speech in Cairo and again at the United Nations later that year, saying the U.S. “does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”)
But at a meeting with Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem last week Kerry dropped the modifier, saying only “we consider now and have always considered the settlements to be illegitimate.”
Asked Thursday about the significance of dropping the word “continued,” Psaki said it was just “an issue of semantics.”
A reporter disagreed. “If you talk about the illegitimacy only of continued settlements, that means that you take no position on existing settlements,” said the Associated Press’ Matt Lee.
“If you have in fact dropped the word ‘continued’ from in front of ‘settlement activity,’ whether you say it’s a policy change or not it has very broad implications. It would appear as though you are toughening your stance and saying that all Israeli settlements are illegitimate right now.”
Lee then asked whether, by taking that position, the administration was prejudging “final status” talks.
“It is not prejudging final status talks,” Psaki replied. “It’s exactly why we’re in them.”
The drafters of the Oslo Accords – the foundation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – left open for future negotiation the future of the settlements and several other thorny “final status” issues.
Over the two decades since they were signed, Israeli governments on the right and left have said they expect that a negotiated final agreement will leave at least major settlement blocs intact.
An April 2004 letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from President George W. Bush, subsequently endorsed by both Houses of Congress, recognized such an outcome.
“In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations 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,” Bush wrote, adding that “all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.”
“It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities,” said Bush, who also read out key excerpts of that letter during a joint appearance with Sharon at the White House.
‘Mistaken and ill-advised’
Israeli legal scholars have long argued that the Oslo Accords, signed with the PLO and witnessed by President Clinton, in no way require Israel to remove settlements, or to stop or suspend construction in the communities.
Then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin only got parliamentary approval for the accords on that basis.
When he brought the Oslo II agreement to the Knesset for approval in 1995, Rabin reassured lawmakers: “We made a commitment to the Knesset not to uproot any settlement in the framework of the Interim Agreement [Oslo I], nor to freeze construction and natural growth.”
The PLO argues that a clause in Oslo prohibiting actions that “change the status” of the territories applies to settlement activity; Israel counters that the intent of the clause was to prevent Israel from annexing territory, or the PLO from unilaterally declaring statehood. Only such actions, Israeli legal advisor and diplomat Dore Gold contended, would amount to changing the status of the territories.
In an open letter to Kerry this week, Alan Baker, a former ambassador and legal counsel to the Israeli foreign ministry, said his statements about settlement illegitimacy were “mistaken and ill-advised, both in law and in fact.”
Noting the Oslo stance on settlements as a final status issue, Baker wrote, “Your statements serve to not only to prejudge this negotiating issue, but also to undermine the integrity of that agreement, as well as the very negotiations that you so enthusiastically advocate.”
“There is no requirement in any of the signed agreements between Israel and the Palestinians that Israel cease or freeze settlement activity,” he said. “The opposite is in fact the case. The 1995 interim agreement [Oslo II] enables each party to plan, zone and build in the areas under its respective control.”
Baker said that with his statements Kerry was “taking sides, prejudicing your own personal credibility, as well as that of the U.S.”